Google Ordered to Change Handling of User Data in Germany

Google Inc. was ordered by a German regulator to limit how it combines user data that could be used to find out customers’ personal preferences, including marital status or sexual orientation.

The operator of the biggest Internet search engine was ordered to modify its privacy policies so users have the ability to determine how their data is used, Johannes Caspar, Hamburg’s privacy watchdog, said in an e-mailed statement today. The terms of Google’s 2012 privacy policy allow the Mountain View, California-based company to combine data it retrieves when customers use various services, including Gmail, Caspar said.

“With that, one can compile detailed movement patterns, detect the social and financial status, and friendship, sexual orientation and the relationship status” of a person, the regulator said.

Google is under pressure across Europe over data-protection issues. Regulators throughout the European Union last week asked Chief Executive Officer Larry Page to implement measures to improve its privacy policy. In addition, the company has been criticized over its response to an EU court ruling that requires it to delete links to personal information that individuals consider outdated or irrelevant.

‘Personality Portraits’

While Google’s terms exclude the use of highly sensitive personal data for advertising purposes, combining such information from the individual services can yield “conclusive and almost complete personality portraits,” according to the Hamburg authority. Such a “massive” joining of data has no basis in national or European law, according to Caspar’s office.

Google said that it is reviewing the order.

“We cooperated during the whole process with the Hamburg data regulator,” said Klaas Flechsig, a spokesman for Google. “We showed how our privacy policies provide for easier and better services for users.”

In talks with the Hamburg authority, Google agreed to “numerous” improvements, Caspar said. The company didn’t pledge the required changes on profiling, leading him to issue a formal order, he said.

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