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Tuesday, 09 October 2018 05:15

Google+ social network shut down after data leak exposed Featured

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Google+ social network shut down after data leak exposed Pixabay

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, will shut down the Google+ social network after confirming on Monday that data from up to half a million user accounts may have leaked due to a bug in the system.

The company kept quiet about the leak for many months, fearing regulatory intervention. The shutdown will take place over the next 10 months.

The Wall Street Journal  reported that the company kept quiet about the leak which occurred between 2015 and March 2018 when it was found and fixed.

Google said the affected data was limited to static optional Google+ profile fields including names, email addresses, occupations, gender and age.

The company said in a statement: "We found no evidence that any developer was aware of this bug, or abusing the API, and we found no evidence that any Profile data was misused."

The report said Google's legal and policy executives had warned in an internal memo that disclosure of the leak would lead to "immediate regulatory interest" and lead to comparisons with Facebook's leak of user details to data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica which came to light in March, the same month that the Google+ leak was discovered.

Cambridge Analytica was forced to shut its doors in May.

The report said Google chief executive Sundar Pichai was told of the decision to withhold the news of the leak after an internal committee had made the decision.

A Google spokesman said the company had considered "whether we could accurately identify the users to inform, whether there was any evidence of misuse, and whether there were any actions a developer or user could take in response”, when it made the decision not to disclose the incident when it was discovered.

Commenting on the incident, Jessica Ortega, a website security analyst at Web security firm SiteLock, said the Google+ flaw allowed more than 400 apps using the Google+ API to access the personal information of approximately 500,000 users.

"The flaw was discovered in March, but Google opted not to disclose this vulnerability as it found no evidence that the information had been misused. Additionally, the decision not to disclose the discovered vulnerability speaks to a fear of reputational damage and possible legal ramifications or litigation in light of recent Senate hearings and the GDPR [the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation]."

Ortega said such delays in reporting data leaks could become more common among technology companies as they looked to protect their reputation in the wake of legislation and privacy laws.

"They may choose not to disclose vulnerabilities that they are not legally required to report in order to avoid scrutiny or fines. Ultimately it will be up to users to proactively monitor how their data is used and what applications have access to that data by using strong passwords and carefully reviewing access requests prior to using an app like Google+," she added.

Tyler Moffitt, senior threat research analyst at security firm Webroot, said: "Although it seems that Google has shut down an entire line of business due to this breach, from a GDPR perspective, the company appears to have gotten off lightly.

"Had this breach occurred just a few months later, Google could be subject to strict GDPR fines for not keeping user data safe."

Moffitt added that consumers should be aware that connecting apps in social media platforms "only increases the amount of valuable information that could potentially be breached, as well as increasing attack vectors that hackers can leverage".

Matt Chiodi, vice-president of Cloud Security at Red Lock, said: "Given Google's largely stellar reputation, I am shocked that they would purposefully choose to not disclose this incident.

"We have learned from similar situations that consumers possess a strong ability to forgive when companies take immediate and demonstrable steps to ensure their mistakes are not repeated.

"Think about J&J with the Tylenol scandal in the 1980s. Because of their swift response, J&J remains one of the most trusted brands. Google could lose a great deal of respect and ultimately revenue if this report is true.”

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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