Google Buzz poses a major privacy risk for kids, analyst (and parent) says


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Should parents worry about Google Buzz? Technology analyst Charlene Li thinks so.

She says she has counseled her children on how to stay safe online, including not sharing personal information. But the other day she logged into her Google Buzz account only to discover that her 9-year-old daughter had posted a conversation with friends to Buzz without understanding the post was public.


‘I saw it because Buzz conveniently made me a follower of hers. I pride myself on staying ahead of my kids, but this time, my kid got ahead of me,’ Li wrote. ‘Fortunately, this was her only Buzz posting. But what was most disturbing was looking at her friends’ conversations and realizing that some of them were chatting with complete strangers, and in some cases, sharing personal information like e-mails. Absolutely terrifying as these are 4th graders who have no clue.”

The blog post’s most frightening line: “Imagine parents (and kids) checking out their Buzz accounts to find that ‘iorgyinbathrooms’ is following them, which is exactly what happened with my child’s account.’

Li, founder of Altimeter Group, turned off Google Buzz, alerted the parents of her daughter’s friends and went into full analyst mode.

“First, I discovered that buried in Google’s terms of service somewhere is that children under the age of 13 are not allowed to have Gmail accounts. But unlike Facebook, which requires that people enter their birthdates when setting up accounts, Google makes no such attempt to educate people signing up for Gmail that such a provision is in place. As a result, while Google is absolved of responsibility because of the TOS, it could and should do a better job of complying with the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).”

Li said she also worries that even if parents disable Buzz, kids can easily turn it back on. And they may not understand how to manage the settings to stay safe. So she is asking for Google to add parental controls to Gmail. And she is asking parents to take action.

“Does your child have a Gmail account? If so, have you talked to them about what Google Buzz is and how they should be properly using it? Please take action, which may be as dramatic as completely disabling Buzz on your child’s account. Do this as soon as possible, as I’m concerned that unsavory characters are already exploiting this parental control loophole.”


Privacy expert Kathryn Montgomery, a professor at American University, urged the Federal Trade Commission to address the issue.

‘Google Buzz is a new danger zone for children,’ she said. ‘Google knows that kids are strongly attracted to Gmail, as they are to the growing number of social networks online. Google Buzz is designed to make private communications public by default. It is problematic enough for most of us. But when it comes to kids, it is particularly troublesome.’

Google has already gotten blasted for how it rolled out its social networking tool inside millions of Gmail accounts. We will update with a response from Google when we get one.

And if that weren’t enough trouble for Google, there may be more on the horizon. The Electronic Privacy Information Center is amending its complaint with the FTC to allege that Google violated its own privacy policy for Gmail when it launched Buzz.

Last week Google held privacy briefings for reporters and bloggers covering the Internet giant. Privacy counsel insisted that the company followed rigorous protocols before rolling out the product, but conceded there were some problems in the ‘execution.’ Google did test Buzz on its employees (something it calls ‘dog fooding’ or eating their own dog food). One blogger got some laughs when he said the company may have missed what ‘real people’ care about.

[Updated at 1:50 p.m.

Google spokesman Scott Rubin said: ‘We designed Buzz to make it easy to have conversations with your friends about the things that interest you. Keeping kids safe online is very important to us. You must have a Google account to use Buzz, and we require all new users to provide birth dates to keep children under 13 from signing up for Google accounts. Since we launched Buzz, we’ve listened to the feedback from our users and have made many product improvements to address their concerns. It’s still early, and we have a long list of improvements on the way. We look forward to hearing more suggestions and will continue to improve the Buzz experience with user control top of mind. Even as we roll out these changes, we think it’s important to remember that there’s no substitute for parental supervision to keep kids safe on the Internet.’]

-- Jessica Guynn