Technology

Google faces winged-monkey privacy protest

Winged monkey Image copyright Getty Images

Google has angered a privacy expert by repeatedly identifying him as a "dwarf character actor" famous for playing a winged monkey in The Wizard of Oz.

Pat Walshe told BBC News he had had the issue resolved twice, only to discover last week it had happened again.

The issue involves his photo being run next to text from another source about a dead American who had the same name.

He now aims to make an official complaint to data privacy watchdogs. Google has once again fixed the flaw.

Personal contacts

A day after BBC News raised the matter, Mr Walshe's photo had been removed from the "knowledge box" near the top of the Google's search results.

The US company has not explained or apologised for the mistake.

But a spokeswoman said she did not believe the correction had been made as a result of BBC News's intervention.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Mr Walshe said he was "shocked" to discover he had again been misidentified as a dead actor

Mr Walshe said he had first flagged the problem several years ago and then again in February of this year, after which he had hoped the issue had been resolved for good.

It was only when he discussed the matter at a conference in Berlin and another attendee carried out a Google Search that he realised one of his profile images had again been linked to an unrelated Wikipedia entry.

"Everybody felt it was funny," he said.

"But what if the text's biography was that of someone who had committed a terrible crime?

"That could have consequences for me in an age of artificial-intelligence-driven decision-making, for example."

Google provides a way to for users to "suggest changes" but Mr Walshe said he had ultimately had to resort to personal contacts to have the matter addressed in the past.

'Simpler process'

The first time he involved a lawyer he knew at Google. The second time he emailed Google's chief executive directly - and when he received no response, raised the matter at a major conference attended by the company.

As the former privacy director of the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), Mr Walshe said, he had the means to ensure he was not ignored - but others in a similar situation might not.

"I will make a formal complaint both to the ICO [Information Commissioner's Office] and to the Data Protection Commissioner of Ireland because it's very clear that individuals need a much simpler process by which they can exercise their rights." he said.

An American author told the BBC he has faced related problems of his own.

In Ernest Dempsey's case, the Knowledge Box shows his photo and the images of books he has written, but the biography of a Pakistani writer.

Image caption Mr Demspey said he had tried in vain to get Google to correct the error

"It's been an impossibly infuriating process to try to get Google to fix the bio with my image," he explained.

"The mix-up is there is another writer who used my name as his pen name, which is fine. But I get emails every month about how I went from Pakistan to America to be a writer.

"Perhaps it's cost me money, perhaps not. But either way it's frustrating."

Google referred BBC News to a blog it had posted in July explaining how people and organisations could provide "authoritative feedback" about mistakes.

"If an image or a Google Images results preview that's shown in a knowledge panel does not accurately represent the person, place or thing, we'll... fix the error," it says.

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