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EFF sues Justice Department over Google privacy hire

Foundation seeks communications that department's "top privacy lawyer had with Google before leaving her government position to join the company."

Update at 8:50 a.m. to clarify judge ruling in subpoena case, and at 2:55 p.m. to add further comment from the EFF.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice seeking information about communications between a former top privacy official and Google, which eventually hired the official.

At the time Jane Horvath was named as the Justice Department's chief privacy and civil-liberties officer in February 2006, Google was challenging a subpoena by the department for Web searches. A federal judge granted part of a Justice Department request for Google search data allowing Google to share information about random URLs but said users' search queries were off-limits.

Horvath, quoted in an article afterward, was critical of the initial subpoena, saying she had privacy concerns with it, the EFF says.

In the fall of 2007, Horvath was named as Google's senior privacy counsel. The EFF asked the Justice Department for information about communications between Horvath and Google by filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but the Justice Department has not responded, according to the EFF.

"Google has an unprecedented ability to collect and retain very personal information about millions of Americans, and the DOJ and other law enforcement agencies have developed a huge appetite for that information," EFF Senior Counsel David Sobel wrote in a statement Tuesday about the foundation's lawsuit against the government agency (PDF). "We want to know what discussions DOJ's top privacy lawyer had with Google before leaving her government position to join the company."

Sobel explained that the nonprofit would probably have filed the lawsuit even if Google had never hired Horvath.

"There is no suggestion on our part that there was anything inappropriate by her being hired by Google or that there was a quid pro quo," he said in an interview. "The obvious question is what contact had the DOJ's chief privacy officer had with a large data collecting company like Google on data retention?"

A Justice Department spokesman said the agency had no comment. Google spokesman Steve Langdon said "Google did not work with Jane Horvath on this issue when she was at DOJ."