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Google faces mounting pressure from Congress over Google+ privacy flaw


Republican leaders from the Senate Commerce Committee are demanding answers from Google CEO Sundar Pichai about a recently unveiled Google+ vulnerability, requesting the companys internal communications regarding the issue in a letter today. This past March, Google had discovered a flaw in its Google+ API that had the potential to expose the private information of hundreds of thousands of users. In the internal memo first obtained by The Wall Street Journal, officials at Google opted not to disclose the vulnerability to its users or the public for fear of bad press and potential regulatory action. Now, lawmakers are asking to see those communications firsthand. As the Senate Commerce Committee works toward legislation that establishes a nationwide privacy framework to protect consumer data, improving transparency will be an essential pillar of the effort to restore Americans faith in the services they use, the lawmakers wrote. It is for this reason that the reported contents of Googles internal memo are so troubling. On Wednesday, some of the senators Democratic counterparts on the committee reached out to the Federal Trade Commission to demand that the agency investigate the Google+ security flaw, saying in a letter that if agency officials discover problematic conduct, we encourage you to act decisively to end this pattern of behavior through substantial financial penalties and strong legal remedies. The Google+ privacy flaw comes amid a heated debate over consumer data privacy kicked off by Facebooks ongoing Cambridge Analytica scandal. Over the past few weeks, lawmakers have repeatedly heard from tech executives, policy heads, and advocates on how to craft an overarching federal privacy bill. Pichai has stayed away from those discussions, even leaving the companys seat vacant at a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in which executives from Facebook and Twitter faced off with lawmakers. At the same time, some senators are expressing a new openness to anti-monopoly action against modern tech companies like Google. In an interview published today in The Atlantic, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) expressed concern that both Google and Facebook may be too large for effective competitors to emerge. Is there ever an ability to really break up their market dominance? Warner said. Even if youve got a better app, you can never match them on dataBy sending these letters and requesting investigations, Congress is beginning to take what theyve heard in hearings to start to take action on behalf of consumers. Particularly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica controversy, consumers trust in the companies that operate those services to keep their private data secure has been shaken, todays letter reads. At the same time that Facebook was learning the important lesson that tech firms must be forthright with the public about privacy issues, Google apparently elected to withhold information about a relevant vulnerability for fear of public scrutiny. Google has until October 30th to respond to the senators inquiries, just weeks before Pichai is scheduled to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee following the November midterm elections. An exact date for that hearing has yet to be announced.

Congress seeks more information on the Google+ data exposure


It sent the company a letter requesting additional details. Since the Google+ data exposure came to light earlier this week, European regulatory authorities have announced investigations into the matter and a US Senator has called for an FTC probe. Now, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has sent the company a letter requesting more information about the incident and Google's decision to keep it under wraps. "Data privacy is an issue of great concern for many Americans who use online services. Particularly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica controversy, consumers' trust in the companies that operate those services to keep their private data secure has been shaken," the Senators write. "It is for this reason that the reported contents of Google's internal memo are so troubling. At the same time that Facebook was learning the important lesson that tech firms must be forthright with the public about privacy issues, Google apparently elected to withhold information about a relevant vulnerability for fear of public scrutiny." While Google discovered and fixed a bug in March that allowed outside developers to access around 500,000 Google+ users' private info, it chose not to disclose the finding. The company's official line is that because there was no evidence that data was misused and no way to know who was affected, it didn't find a disclosure necessary. However, an internal memo obtained by the Wall Street Journal noted that revealing the bug could result in "us coming into the spotlight alongside or even instead of Facebook despite having stayed under the radar throughout the Cambridge Analytica scandal. " The letter, which was signed by committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) and subcommittee Chairmen Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Jerry Moran (R-KS), asks for a copy of the memo referenced by the Wall Street Journal as well as detailed information on how the company discovered the issue and dealt with it. Additionally, the committee wants to know why Google didn't disclose the bug, whether it reported the problem to the FTC, if any similar incidents have been found and not reported and if Google will inform the committee in the event that it finds the bug did lead to data misuse. The committee has requested a response by October 30th as well as a staff briefing on the matter.