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Google's privacy director departs after years of controversial practices and legal trouble

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Google privacy director Alma Whitten headshot
Google privacy director Alma Whitten headshot

Google has confirmed to The Verge that lead privacy director Alma Whitten will be leaving the company after 10 years. Software engineering director Lawrence You, who's been with the company eight years and is a founding member of Google's privacy team, will be taking over the job. A Google spokesperson said in part "Alma has done so much to improve our products and protect our users." But Whitten leaves behind a mixed record as Google's privacy director, especially in recent years, when the company ran into trouble with governments around the world for practices deemed disconcerting at best and violations at worst.

Whitten leaves behind a mixed record as Google's privacy director

Whitten joined Google in 2003 but became privacy director in 2010, just after Google admitted to secretly capturing Wi-Fi data from homeowners' unprotected networks using its StreetView cars. The company paid a $25,000 fine to the US Federal Communications Commission and another $7 million fine to states to settle that issue while she was in charge. Whitten also oversaw Google's move to merge its more than 60 privacy policies into one master privacy policy, which drew questioning from US Congress and is still under scrutiny by European regulators.

Arguably the biggest blow to Google's privacy reputation under her watch came in August last year, when Google paid a $22.5 million fine issued by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for bypassing Apple's Safari browser's default security settings. Despite all that, Whitten did oversee Google increasing transparency when it came to publishing information about what data the government was asking Google to turn over about its users.

Google is looking to avoid future privacy issues

Still, Google is reportedly looking to avoid future privacy issues and appear more compliant to government regulators — reasons that actually motivated in part the recent shutdown announcement for Google Reader, according to AllThingsD. Under that climate, it seems that Whitten picked a good time to pack up and make way for a new privacy regime. It's not clear where Whitten will go from here, and Google didn't respond to questions about her next move.