Some officials of the Japanese government mistakenly circulated the contents of sensitive documents to the public after choosing a wrong privacy setting for Google Groups online discussion, according to report from the Yomiuri Shimbun.

Google groups

The report indicated that more than 6,000 messages inter-government and private sector communications including e-mails about sensitive issues, were revealed using the free-internet based service of Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG).

A spokesperson for the Environment Ministry indicated that three senior officials unintentionally made public some information including contents of meetings and negotiations with other countries regarding an international mercury trade treaty last January.

The Environment Ministry spokesperson also said that the Japanese delegation uploaded their communications with their counterparts from Switzerland and Norway in the treaty, which will be signed in the autumn. The spokesperson said, “It was problematic that the processes around ongoing negotiations could be seen by outsiders. We have taken corrective steps.” He emphasized that the memos were not top secret, but were not supposed to be released to the public.

Google Groups – 66 emails made public

Sixty six e-mails containing information regarding the preparation and follow-up negotiations at the Minamata Convention on Mercury from January 10 to 21 were made public on the internet. The objective of the convention was to regulate the import and export of mercury.

A senior official of the Environment Ministry explained, “We have our own internal system to share e-mails, but we used Google Groups because it was convenient.” According to him, they started using the service to share information to important parties on January 10.

Security awareness “weak”

One of the officials of the ministry acknowledged that their security awareness was weak. The ministry opened an investigation regarding the issue on Wednesday. The ministry believed that the use of Google Groups service is against its information management regulation, and it is considering the possibility of implementing disciplinary actions against the officials who accidentally leaked sensitive information.

The internal regulations of the ministry stipulated that officials are required to inform their superiors regarding the use of external communication systems, and they are mandated to take privacy precautions when handling confidential documents.

Internet users can participate and organize online discussions using Google Groups using their e-mail or directly online. However, the default settings of the service enables the public to access all contents.