Jessica E. Vascellaro
Wall Street Journal
Google disclosed Saturday that it shared a very small number of online documents with users who weren't authorized to see them.
The privacy glitch, caused by a software bug, affected just a tiny fraction of documents - an estimated less than .05% - wrote Jennifer Mazzon, Google Docs product manager, on a corporate blog. Google notified users affected by the bug on Friday and reversed the mistake, she said.
The bug hit users who changed their sharing settings on multiple presentations and documents at once, causing Google to share those documents with other users with whom the document owner had shared a document before, Ms. Mazzon wrote.
Though contained, the mistake underscores another pitfall of online software: the chance that someone may gain unintentional access to it.
By storing software online with Google and other providers - as opposed to keeping it downloaded to a single computer - multiple people can view and update a document at once. But the systems for managing those permissions can break down, causing documents to end up in the wrong hands. Proponents of online software also argue that the more traditional model of keeping software on a computer is prone to privacy problems as well. Someone could steal your computer, for instance.
Online software privacy breaches have been very rare. Outages or other reliability issues are slightly more common problems. (Google's email service Gmail suffered one of those last month.)
Still, privacy problems are likely to be more damaging than the occasional blackout, especially for corporations that tightly manage their information and the government agencies Google is trying to court.
Google acknowledged the incident already caused them some pain of a different sort. "We understand our users' concerns (in fact, we were affected by this bug ourselves)," wrote Ms. Mazzon in her post. "We're treating this very seriously."
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