Privacy commissioner reviewing Google Buzz

Concerns around Google's recently unveiled Buzz feature are deepening with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada looking into the social-networking tool.

Concerns around Google's recently unveiled Buzz feature are deepening with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada looking into the social-networking tool.

Valerie Lawton, a spokeswoman for the privacy office, said the office is looking into concerns about Buzz.

"We understand the public concern about privacy issues related to Google Buzz," she said. "Our office is looking at the issue."

Lawton added that the office may comment further on Wednesday.

Google has ignited a hailstorm of criticism with Buzz, which adds real-time communication and media-sharing features found on popular social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to its Gmail service.

Buzz users can share status updates, news stories, videos and photos, and they can link in feeds from sites such as Twitter and Picasa.

The company unveiled Buzz last week as a feature inside Gmail. Once launched, Buzz automatically searched the user's most emailed contacts and added them as followers, thereby inadvertently exposing potentially sensitive communications.

One user blogged about how Buzz automatically added her abusive ex-boyfriend as a follower and exposed her communications with a current partner to him. Other bloggers commented that repressive governments in countries such as China or Iran could use Buzz to expose dissidents.

In the United States, the Electronic Privacy Information Center said it plans to lodge a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission because Buzz is forcing Gmail users into a social networking service they don't necessarily want.

Over the weekend, Google promised to implement changes, including a disabling of the auto-follow function in favour of suggested followers, to give users more control over their privacy. Buzz product manager Todd Jackson admitted the new service hadn't been properly tested and apologized for the snafu.

"We've been testing Buzz internally at Google for a while. Of course, getting feedback from 20,000 Googlers isn't quite the same as letting Gmail users play with Buzz in the wild," he told BBC News.

Google Canada spokesperson Wendy Rozeluk said the company has been talking with federal and provincial privacy officials, but would not comment on what was discussed.

The company is moving to implement changes as quickly as possible, with some of them taking effect this week, she added.

"We'll be making some significant product improvements over the next few days based on user feedback," she said. "The user always comes first."

Social networking websites have kept Canada's Privacy Commissioner busy recently.

Last summer, the commissioner's office forced Facebook to make sweeping changes to its policies after finding that the site violated Canadians' privacy rights. Last month, assistant privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she was again looking into Facebook after receiving complaints that the website has not followed through on its promises.

Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart also last week announced upcoming consultations relating to privacy and cloud computing, another service of which Google is a big proponent. Stoddart said that by storing an increasing number of documents and files on servers hosted by third parties, Canadians are potentially making themselves vulnerable to privacy violations.