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Google? World Privacy Day? Don't make me laugh

Google has joined a host of big names from the IT world today to celebrate World Data Privacy Day 2011. Facebook hasn't.

Which goes to show the search giant, at least, hasn't lost its sense of humour. Or perhaps, with the announcement last week that Eric Schmidt is to step down as CEO, the folks at Mountain View are trying to turn over a new leaf and get back to the avowed intention of the company’s founders to "do no evil".

The backing comes after a year in which Google riled up privacy regulators in just about every country* in the known world, beginning in February with a rumpus (opens in new tab) over its new Buzz social networking service.

Criticism mounted to a frenzy after it was discovered in May that the cars photographing the world’s thoroughfares for Google’s Street View service had also been collecting data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks (opens in new tab) along the way – something that the company claims was "mistaken": an abberation caused by the work of a ‘rogue’ programmer.

While the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office may have been mollified (opens in new tab) by Google’s promise to play nice in future, other countries have taken a tougher line.

German regulators are still investigating the company’s Wi-Fi snooping, and also insisted on comprehensive opt out measures (opens in new tab) when the Street View service rolled across the country in November.

More than 240,000 homeowners who didn’t wish to see their properties posted online rushed to demand that the buildings were blurred out (opens in new tab) on Germany’s version of the service – including, somewhat hypocritically, Google’s German HQ (opens in new tab).

Data Privacy Day, now in its third year, is officially celebrated by 27 European countries, plus Canada and the United States – where the government will, we’re sure, be desperately hoping it might be marked by a 24-hour moratorium on WikiLeaks’ Cablegate revelations about the country’s dodgy diplomacy.

According to the Day’s official website (opens in new tab), this period of high-minded reflection – and, on the face of it, precious little in the way of concrete undertakings – is all about us, the common people:

“Data Privacy Day is an international celebration of the dignity of the individual expressed through personal information.

"In this networked world, in which we are thoroughly digitized, with our identities, locations, actions, purchases, associations, movements, and histories stored as so many bits and bytes, we have to ask – who is collecting all of this – what are they doing with it – with whom are they sharing it?

"Most of all, individuals are asking ‘How can I protect my information from being misused?’ These are reasonable questions to ask – we should all want to know the answers.”

Helping Google to sponsor the "dialogue" that is supposed to yield these answers are Microsoft, Intel and Visa.

One notable absentee from the Day's list of participants was Facebook. The social networking site hit a wall of protest last year (opens in new tab) after effectively hiding its users' privacy controls, and sharing their personal information with just about anyone prepared to stump up the cash.

Earlier this week, the site offered a sop (opens in new tab) to its many detractors by protecting all sessions on the site using SSL encryption. Previously, only the login process had been encrypted. In addition, the site is adding what it calls ‘social captchas’, requiring users to verify themselves by correctly identifying photos of friends.

*An exaggeration, perhaps, but the list of concerned parties includes the UK, The U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia, France, Spain, South Korea and more.

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