Google Seeks Patent for Process to Scour Documents for Illegal Conduct

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-05-07 Print this article Print

In response to a May 7 email inquiry from eWEEK, a Google spokesman said that the application doesn't mean that such a technology will ever be released or sold by the search giant.

"We file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees come up with," the spokesman said. "Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services; some don't. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patent applications."

Jeffrey Child, an associate professor of communications and privacy expert at Kent State University, said he doesn't buy that characterization by the Google spokesman.

"It's just ludicrous to think that they're not in the works on this technology," Child told eWEEK. In the past, ideas have circulated for how to do this kind of data scouring inside organizations to ensure that employees or others aren't sharing secrets improperly or engaging in illegal conduct, but so much information is stored and available that it would take too much effort to get it done on an everyday basis, he said. Organizations, including companies, certainly own the information that their employees produce, from emails to phone calls, on company equipment.

"But that produces a phenomenal amount of data," said Child. "This feels like an adaptation of that," he said of the Google patent application.

"Should people be concerned?" he asked. "Absolutely. I think it's something to be concerned about, including who gets to decide what gets passed on to whom."

The problem is that a technology like this could be used in bad ways that could hurt people, he said. "You need to be cautious in anything you do online. I suspect that this is the first of many ways that will arise to scour huge quantities of data."

What most worries Child, he said, is that this kind of technology could be used by people or organizations to spy on others. "What if someone wants to buy this to spy on and see what their significant other is doing? That is a violation of personal privacy. That's where this becomes an issue of personal ethics and whether you are going to openly talk about this or snoop."

In a related matter, Google in recent months has been loudly assailed for its privacy policy practices when it comes to its users around the world. One of the key issues arising in Europe surrounds Google's handling of personal user data.

In April, Google was hit with an $189,167 fine in Germany for collecting user data without fully disclosing the practice as Google StreetView vehicles combed German streets collecting information for its maps back from 2007 to 2010.


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