The Digital Skeptic: Google Isn't Answering on Privacy

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- You'd figure that by now, Google would know if it were peeking at all our stuff or not. But, sadly, it doesn't.

I am one of the tiny fraction of the billions of Google users who actually pays to use Google. My shop is among the 4 million or so firms forking over $5 per user per month for access to Google Apps for Business.

For my firm that adds up to roughly $600 a year. For that, I get Google's never-ending slate of business services, including Docs, Speadsheets and, starting last week, the clearly doomed Google Drive. (That's the online data syncing and back-up service, an attempt to compete with other bound-for-the-woodshed syncing services such as Dropbox, Microsoft SkyDrive and many, many others.)

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As a paying customer, I get things most don't: an 800 number and a PIN ID that gives me the right to pick up the phone and say, "Mountain View, we have a problem."

And darned if Google doesn't speak right back.

Sure, it's not Larry or Sergey talking. Bright, earnest call-in center folks with names such as Fergal from Ireland and Markku from Montreal usually answer my questions. No question, Google gets a bad rap for bad service -- if you pay, Google is a cordial and professional service provider and much better than, say, Microsoft, Dell or most other enterprise tech vendors.

But for my current problem, mere professionalism doesn't seem to be an answer.

Starting last week, I began several long conversations with Google about the digital 800-pound gorilla in the room. After five-plus years of happily running a strictly cloud-based Google Apps business, revelations about lost data, dubious terms of service and frankly creepy acts by Google have me spooked.

I wanted to know: "Is Google looking at my stuff?"

The official non-answers I get -- not once, but over and over -- are emails such as "I will continue to investigate the issue."

The cloud gets cloudy
If you do a bit of Googling, you'll see from where my concerns about Google's ability to manage my business data stem.

Start by searching "Google Street View." See the horrifying reports from the likes of Law.com that say the search giant nefariously captured personal information via its roaming vehicles from 2007 until 2010. Google claims a single "rogue employee" somehow evaded management controls for three years. The FCC report questioned how that could be possible. Yikes!

Next, Google "David Barksdale." Back in 2010, this former Google engineer -- and by these accounts a legitimate creep -- was accused of using his internal clearances to Gmail and GTalk to spy on and harass four minors. Of course Barksdale was dismissed. But reports say he was not alone; TechCrunch reported that another engineer had committed similar transgressions. Not good.

Next, Google "Mocality." This year this business directory service, based in Kenya, apparently was subject to active manipulation by a Google employee. According to the Google+ page of Nelson Mattos, who works with Google's Cultural Institute in Zurich, a Google employee "misrepresented our relationship with Mocality to encourage customers to create new websites." Say what?

Securing the sweatshop
Now do I think Google is riddled with scoundrels? Or that investors are facing a centralized breach in company practices like the phone-hacking scandal at News Corp ? Absolutely not.

But it's no secret Google is a hard-driving culture that demands long, long work days. And considering the number of digital beach balls this operation has in the air, could Mountain View be just a little bit asleep at the security switch in managing my itty-bitty -- but critical to me -- files?

For businesses in the business of managing sensitive client data -- including information about trades and traders -- are those risks any of us can afford to run?

Amazingly, I am getting the cold feeling that the cloud Google is built on is just that: vapor in thin air.

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