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The unseen security and compliance risks of free online translation

on Wednesday 23 July 2014 Written by David Martin

We all enjoy killing time on the internet chuckling at embarrassing mistranslations. This popular pastime has even catapulted some botched translations, such as "All your base are belong to us" and "Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave," into internet infamy. Well, you get what you pay for.

Nevertheless, ongoing growth in global marketing and communications has only increased the temptation to resort to the web's fast, free and anything-but-perfect machine translation tools. In 2013, online search giant Google reported that every day upwards of 200 million people use its free machine translation services, many of which, one assumes, use it in their line of work. Aside from the obvious risks these tools pose to businesses - miscommunications, unintentional cultural insults, lost business - there is another underlying threat that many enterprises often fail to recognise.

Common Sense Advisory, the independent market research firm focusing on language services, has explored the risks associated with merely inputting sensitive information into any of the no-cost translation tools, such as Google and Bing's online services.

Common Sense Advisory's Don DePalma writes that "employees and your suppliers are unconsciously conspiring to broadcast your confidential information, trade secrets, and intellectual property (IP) to the world.”

The manner in which sensitive data or confidential information requiring translation can leak is twofold. First, information can be stolen "in transit" by transferring or accessing it over unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots or by storing it on cloud servers. Such risks have already been widely publicised.

Less considered, however, is what online machine translation providers do with the data users input. DePalma points out that such sites exercise the right to use your data in ways you may not have intended. Google, for instance, initially states in its policies that it "does not claim any ownership in the content that you submit or in the translations of that content returned by the API."

However, reading further, one discover that "When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”

Putting quality and accuracy aside for a moment, this highlights another important factor in employing professional human translators – knowing who is handling your data and being assured that it is secure.

Confidentiality is a top priority for Today Translations’ clients and they expect us to treat this seriously. “The threat from cyber criminals and fraudsters, both in the online and real world, is very real,” says former Police Chief David Clarke. “To mitigate risks, especially those associated with regulated professions, Today Translations partnered with a team of experts for over 18 months and became the first specialist translation services company to achieve ISO:27001 certification, the international standard for data security.”

In essence, this requires all client data for translation to be monitored from initial request to final delivery and that our professional machine translation products are secured from any other third-party servers. The controls to do this are independently verified by external assessors.

What does this mean? Machine translation tools are improving and there is a demand for them. However, as the capacity and availability of free machine translation tools expand, so too will the amount of inadvertently disclosed sensitive data. The solution when using machine translation is to put in place security controls to protect sensitive data. Users will find their data is better protected when using the more advanced, premium translation software products, such as those used by Today Translations, where there are controls and audit trails following the data.

Trusted global communication within the translation industry is about knowing, first, that your brand is not exposed to any embarrassing errors and, second, that your information is only seen by those who have a right to see it.