Google To Anonymize Search Records After 18 Months

Google has been taking a lot of heat in the past few days over its privacy policies. Today the search giant decreased the amount of time that it ties users search records to their IP to 18 months in response to a letter from the Working Party, a group of national officials that advises the European Union on privacy policy. From the Official Google Blog:

After considering the Working Party’s concerns, we are announcing a new policy: to anonymize our search server logs after 18 months, rather than the previously-established period of 18 to 24 months. We believe that we can still address our legitimate interests in security, innovation and anti-fraud efforts with this shorter period. However, we must point out that future data retention laws may obligate us to raise the retention period to 24 months. We also firmly reject any suggestions that we could meet our legitimate interests in security, innovation and anti-fraud efforts with any retention period shorter than 18 months.

Google is currently deep in a fight with Privacy International, a watchdog group that picked Google as leading ‘the race to the bottom’ of privacy standards.

A few of Privacy International’s problems with Google:

• Google account holders that regularly use even a few of Google’s services must accept that the company retains a large quantity of information about that user, often for an unstated or indefinite length of time, without clear limitation on subsequent use or disclosure, and without an opportunity to delete or withdraw personal data even if the user wishes to terminate the service.

• Google maintains records of all search strings and the associated IP-addresses and time stamps for at least 18 to 24 months and does not provide users with an expungement option. While it is true that many US based companies have not yet established a time frame for retention, there is a prevailing view amongst privacy experts that 18 to 24 months is unacceptable, and possibly unlawful in many parts of the world.

• Google has access to additional personal information, including hobbies, employment, address, and phone number, contained within user profiles in Orkut. Google often maintains these records even after a user has deleted his profile or removed information from Orkut.

• Google collects all search results entered through Google Toolbar and identifies all Google Toolbar users with a unique cookie that allows Google to track the user’s web movement. Google does not indicate how long the information collected through Google Toolbar is retained, nor does it offer users a data expungement option in connection with the service.

• Google fails to follow generally accepted privacy practices such as the OECD Privacy Guidelines and elements of EU data protection law. As detailed in the EPIC complaint, Google also fails to adopted additional privacy provisions with respect to specific Google services.

• Google logs search queries in a manner that makes them personally identifiable but fails to provide users with the ability to edit or otherwise expunge records of their previous searches.

• Google fails to give users access to log information generated through their interaction with Google Maps, Google Video, Google Talk, Google Reader, Blogger and other services.

Google responded to Privacy International’s study by claiming that it was unfair. “We are disappointed with Privacy International’s report, which is based on numerous inaccuracies and misunderstandings about our services,” said Nicole Wong, Google’s deputy general counsel. “It’s a shame that Privacy International decided to publish its report before we had an opportunity to discuss our privacy practices with them.”

The privacy fight goes on. —MEGHANN MARCO

Google to limit data retention to 18 months [MSNBC]
Google’s Response To The Working Party (PDF)
A Race to the Bottom: Privacy Ranking of Internet Service Companies [Privacy International]
How Long Should Google Remember Searches? [Official Google Blog]
(Photo: OXOX)