What does Google do

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2007-06-17 Print this article Print

with all that data?"> Then there are the sins that Google commits with all that data, according to Privacy International. PIs list, which the NGO says is "by no means" complete, as quoted from its site:
  • Google account holders that regularly use even a few of Googles 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 (although Google recently announced that it would only retain data for 18 months) and does not provide users with an expungement option. While it is true that many U.S.- based companies have not yet established a time frame for retention, there is a prevailing view among 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 users 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 European Union data protection law. As detailed in the EPIC complaint, Google also fails to adopt 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.
    Click here to read more about Privacy Internationals scathing report.
Few would contest the fact that Google collects a vast array of PII. Whether Google can be trusted not to do evil with that laundry list of PII is debatable. For a demonstration of Googles trustworthiness, the Google faithful point to the search companys having refused to comply with a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Justice demanding log entries on its searches—a demand that Google competitors AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo obeyed as the government investigated how often children might stumble upon pornography while using search engines. Even those who want Google to retain PII for far less time than it does give credit to Google for refusing to comply with the subpoena. But, privacy advocates say, the fact that the DOJ subpoenaed the data in the first place proves that government officials are hungry to track citizens and noncitizens Internet doings—as are, of course, law enforcement agencies and criminals, as well. "We supported [Google] when they made that decision" about refusing the subpoena, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC. "We also said we thought it was a mistake for Google to retain so much user information [in the first place]. As long as they do retain it, privacy will be at risk." One only has to look to AOLs August 2006 publishing of confidential information belonging to 658,000 of its subscribers to know what Rotenbergs talking about. Accidents happen. AOL went on to apologize for the inadvertent disclosure, but even its unpublishing of the database didnt make things better—mirror sites were already up. Once data is out, its out. Next Page: An unfair portrayal of Google?

Lisa Vaas is News Editor/Operations for eWEEK.com and also serves as editor of the Database topic center. Since 1995, she has also been a Webcast news show anchorperson and a reporter covering the IT industry. She has focused on customer relationship management technology, IT salaries and careers, effects of the H1-B visa on the technology workforce, wireless technology, security, and, most recently, databases and the technologies that touch upon them. Her articles have appeared in eWEEK's print edition, on eWEEK.com, and in the startup IT magazine PC Connection. Prior to becoming a journalist, Vaas experienced an array of eye-opening careers, including driving a cab in Boston, photographing cranky babies in shopping malls, selling cameras, typography and computer training. She stopped a hair short of finishing an M.A. in English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She earned a B.S. in Communications from Emerson College. She runs two open-mic reading series in Boston and currently keeps bees in her home in Mashpee, Mass.

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