Google Kills Google+ in Wake of Security Vulnerability

October 9, 2018

By Carlo Versano

Google cut its losses quickly this week after reports surfaced of a previously-unreported data issue at the struggling Google+ social network.

The Alphabet-owned company ($GOOGL) said in a blog post on Monday that it would shutter Google+ to consumers as part of a larger restructuring of its privacy controls. It noted that "90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds."

The post seemed timed to respond to a report in the Wall Street Journal that revealed the company had discovered a vulnerability back in March that left the private data of hundreds of thousands of Google+ users potentially exposed for as long as three years until the hole was found and patched.

While Google has come under fire for plenty of things ー from the types of ads that have appeared on its YouTube platform to manipulation of its search algorithms ー this scandal now brings its data practices into question. One of the reporters who broke that story, Douglas MacMillan, told Cheddar Tuesday that Google is now facing questions ー both internally and from the public ー about its policy.

The Journal reported that Google executives, including CEO Sundar Pichai, made a strategic decision to keep the vulnerability secret, given the potential for "immediate regulatory interest."

MacMillan said that decision was hotly discussed inside Google, though the extent to which top-level employees disagreed with the final ruling is unknown.

The bug was discovered just as the Facebook ($FB) scandal involving Cambridge Analytica was reinvigorating a public debate over how big tech companies handle the massive troves of data they collect.

Google said the vulnerability was a result of a coding bug in conjunction with an API that gave access to outside developers and exposed the names, email addresses, occupations, genders, and ages of roughly 500,000 users.

The company said it found no evidence that the exposed data was misused by third-party developers.

That's still worrying for many users, many of whom would prefer to know when their information is potentially put at risk, MacMillan said.

"Billions of people are trusting this company with some of the most sensitive data they have," he added.

The decision to keep the issue private and then kill the social network altogether reflects the ever-heightened stakes for the handful of tech companies that control the vast majority of the web. The "growth at all costs" mantra is being replaced with a more cautious approach that seeks to weigh the trust of an increasingly skeptical public ー and new interest from regulators on Capitol Hill.

But by not immediately alerting the public last spring, Google likely made the matter worse for itself. And now it must overcome a scandal just as it gets ready to unveil a slate of new devices. MacMillan cited his own sources inside Google who told him there is an "awakening" that the company may have some of the same issues as arch-rival Facebook.

This is "not going to help" that perception, he said.

Shares of Google parent Alphabet are down nearly 10 percent from their all-time highs in July.

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