Google exposed the personal data of about 500,000 Google+ users to potential misuse by outside developers for years through a bug, then concealed the error to avoid consequences, according to an investigation published by The Wall Street Journal Monday.
Parent company Alphabet Inc responded by announcing it would shut down Google+, a largely defunct social network launched in 2011 to compete with Facebook. Shares of Alphabet Inc fell by about 1 percent in response to the story.
“Our Privacy & Data Protection Office reviewed this issue, looking at the type of data involved, 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,” Google said of the error in a statement to VOA News. “None of these thresholds were met in this instance.”
The report alleges that the bug became active in 2015, only being discovered by Google and shut down in March of this year. Google confirmed that it had discovered the bug in March, but would not say when it became active.
The Wall Street Journal says it reviewed an internal memo circulated among Google’s legal staff and senior executives that warned of “immediate regulatory interest” and public comparisons to Facebook’s user information leak to Cambridge Analytica should the mistake become public.
According to the paper, the memo said that while Google could not find evidence that the exposed data had been misused, it also could not prove that misuse did not happen.
CEO Sundar Pichai was reportedly informed of the decision to not tell users after it had already been made by an internal committee.
The data exposed included full names, email addresses, birth dates, gender, profile pictures, places lived, occupations and relationship status. It did not include phone numbers, the content of emails or messages, or other kinds of communication data.
Google also said it would begin restricting the data it provides to outside developers. Hours after the story broke, “Google+” was a top trending term on Twitter.