Oops. Japanese Government Shares Internal E-Mails on Google

Jul 11, 2013 8:22am

You may want to think twice the next time you skip over those privacy settings online.

Government ministries in Japan are playing damage control after accidentally leaking internal emails on Google Groups, unaware that the site’s default settings would make their private conversations public.

A spokesman with the Ministry of Environment tells ABC News their Google account was initially set up to share internal information about an international treaty on mercury trade. The forum was set up in January to allow treaty negotiators at the United Nations in Geneva to communicate with ministry staff in Tokyo. The exchange, which involved 66 emails, ranged from discussions about media coverage on the negotiations to summaries of bilateral talks with Switzerland and Norway. No classified information was shared, the ministry said.

Group members thought their online conversation was limited to just 25 people until they got a call from the Yomiuri newspaper this week saying contents of the forum had been available publicly for seven months.

“The forum was only active between Jan. 10 and Jan. 22, but nobody bothered to close the account,” Hidehiro Kikuchi, a manager at the ministry said.

Google Groups allows users to create online and email-based groups to exchange ideas or organize events, among other things. Members can limit access by selecting specific users who can post messages to the group. But default settings automatically set discussions to “public,” a fact ministry officials overlooked, Kikuchi said.

Turns out, they weren’t alone.

An investigation by the Yomiuri reportedly found more than 6,000 cases where information from Japanese companies, hospitals, and schools were publicly available because of improper settings. Yomiuri’s own reporters admitted they had failed to consider proper safeguards, making public interview transcripts and story drafts. Broadcaster NHK said  six government ministries had accidentally shared private information.

In one incident, an employee with the Reconstruction Agency shared unannounced residential construction plans in the tsunami-ravaged Tohoku region with a friend, using Google Groups. At the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, email exchanges regarding a reforestation project were revealed, specifying businesses the group had met with over several years.

All ministries are now examining the content of the information leaks.

 

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