While the news that Aneesh Chopra is stepping down from his White House post as chief technology officer may have earned the most chatter on government IT blogs this week, the bigger buzz behind the scenes was the controversy over Google’s new privacy policies and what it would mean for government employees.
If the controversy began with Google’s announcement Jan. 24 that it plans to follow the activities of users as they move across Google’s various websites and platforms, it escalated quickly the following day with an article by Karen Evans and Jeff Gould.
Karen Evans, of course, is the former director of electronic government during the George W. Bush administration; Jeff Gould is CEO and Director of Research for Peerstone Research.
And Google, it seemed, was quick to answer.
In a statement attributed to Amit Singh, vice president, Google Enterprise, Google assured Google Apps for Government customers:
Evans and Gould, however, also argued:
“The default setting for GAFG and for all similar services from other vendors should be no information sharing at all between services. Furthermore, Google should clarify where its consumer product line ends and its enterprise products begin. Government users want to be assured that the cloud services they use are tailored to the unique security and privacy requirements of the public sector.”
There are a couple of problems with their first demand.
Google Apps for Government incorporate several applications which in large part depend on information sharing to work. The services include:
- Google Calendar (which syncs and shares calendar information);
- Google Docs (which lets users collaborate in real time without the need for attachments);
- Google Sites (which is used primarily for building simple websites and Intranet sites);
- Video (a sort of private YouTube service.)
The functionality agencies contractual acquired require a certain degree of secure information sharing, so halting information sharing defeats the purpose of the services-and the contract at large.
We put in a request for comment from the office of the CIO at the General Services Administration to ask Casey Coleman where GSA stood on the decision.
GSA public affairs, in response, provided a statement that has already made the media rounds, which said:
“The recent changes announced by Google pertain only to their free, publicly available services. These changes do not apply to Google Apps for Government, which is the version used by GSA. Our usage of the Google Apps solution is governed by contractual agreement with Google and our prime contractor. The solution is compliant with all federal regulations and requirements, including those regarding privacy and data protection.”
But federal employees can be forgiven if they find themselves confused over what happens when they use Google’s other products, notably YouTube, News, Picasa, Maps, Earth, Translate, Google+ and dozens of other Google applications in the process of doing their work for the federal government.
That presents a particular dilemma for federal officials wrestling with mobile technology policy in government, and more specifically, whether to adopt Android devices for government use, especially now that Android products account for roughly half of the U.S. smartphone market.
As Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Cecilia Kang in a Washington Post article Jan. 26, that Google’s decision to compile user information won’t accommodate those who want to separate their personal and professional lives.
Google’s new policies also raise questions about how user data will be tracked, who might have access to it, and whether it would ever be disclosed publicly.
That is no small concern for federal agencies which are legally bound to preserve a wide array of official records, which these days routinely involve digital information that moves back and forth over products that Google manages.
For now, Google Enterprise executives insist that GAFG customers needn’t worry about a change to the services they’re already using. Whether they have to worry about how they use the rest of Google’s products and services remains an open question.