An unfair portrayal of

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

Google?"> Still, Google stands by its pledge to do no evil, and when it comes to privacy, the company insists its being misrepresented, saying that the PI report had inaccuracies and mistakes. In a recent discussion with eWEEK, Google Deputy General Counsel Nicole Wong couldnt specify any mistakes per se in the report but had much to say about what she called Googles unfair portrayal in it. For one thing, theres the data retention policy thing. Google in May announced it would anonymize its search logs after 18-24 months.
Googles proud of that. "As far as I know we are only major [search] company to announce a log anonymization policy and limit it to 24 months," Wong said.
Privacy International and other privacy groups, of course, didnt think much of Google drawing the shades of anonymity across PII after keeping it in the limelight of its research and potential mishandling for between one and a half to two years, and they were equally unimpressed with Googles more recent decision to anonymize data after 18 months, as opposed to up to 24. Beth Givens, director and founder of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, points to European metasearch engine Ixquick as being an example of one search company that manages to do just fine without lengthy retention of data. As Ixquick states on one of its privacy policy pages, the search company deletes users privacy data within 48 hours—the only search engine to do so, it claims. As Google has pointed out in its blogs, the rationale behind keeping the data so long is that Google uses it to improve services and protect them against security and other abuses, Wong said. "We tried to balance providing robust service and improving our service." To what extent does Google go to improve search, such that it needs more than a year to squeeze the pulp out of our PII? Google, understandably, keeps its work on mathematical algorithms close to the vest. The company does point to a June 3 article in The New York Times on the topic, which was published after the newspaper was given a rare inside look at what The Times called "a crucial part of Googles inner sanctum, a department called search quality that the company treats like a state secret." (For The Times article, free registration is required.) According to The Times, Googles search-quality team makes on average a half-dozen major and minor changes weekly to the "vast nest" of mathematical formulas powering the companys search engine. As Google engineer Amit Singhal told the newspaper, in Googles quest to fend off competitors search engine efforts, such as those from Yahoo and Microsoft, the goal of search has evolved from finding a user what he or she typed to finding what he or she wants. For example, Googles formulas have evolved to the point of knowing that users who run a search on "apples" are likely interested in fruit, whereas those who type in "Apple" are thinking about iPods or Macs. Google has even enabled its search engine to compensate for searches that are hazily worded or even mistakenly typed in. Whats confronting the search giant now are problems such as Web spam, where pages filled with ads manage to pop up at the top of search listings. Another problem the search team recently worked on was that of users trying to find local businesses lacking a substantial amount of links to them—obviously an issue to an advertising-fueled business such as Google. Click here to read more about the Google-DoubleClick deal. The local-business dilemma was discovered after receiving a complaint about a Palo Alto shop failing to come up in searches. Of course, the company cant rush to fix every complaint, because each fix could break something else in search—similar to when Microsoft patches a vulnerability and then has to test scores of operating systems and application/operating system combinations. What that means, Singhal told The Times, is that the company doesnt react on the first complaint—instead, it lets things "simmer." Simmering takes time. Search company Ixquick, the one touted by privacy groups, hadnt responded to inquiries about the depth and nature of its search optimization by the time this article was posted, but chances are good that 48 hours of data retention doesnt allow for much simmering. One particular area of focus for Google that involves very personal information—a users individual searches as determined by IP address, which only works for users of Gmail—is the vast number of "signals" the company uses to determine page ranking. One signal—the company now identifies more than 200—is a persons individual search history. History is taken into account to determine whether a search return is appropriate for an individual in the context of his or her past searches. The example given by the Times is the search history of a marine biologist compared with that of a sports fan when either searches on the term "dolphins." This, of course, is an area that greatly concerns privacy advocates. Multiple organizations have proved that individuals can be identified through their search strings, given that we tend to search on friends, relatives, local addresses and businesses, and more. Danny Sullivan, a blogger who concentrates on search at, has written a blog that inspects the Privacy International report assertion by refuting most of its charges against Google and pointing out the reports weaknesses, including a reliance on subjective, unmeasurable input such as newspaper articles to come up with its rankings. Even Sullivan considers personally identifiable profiles of individual searchers to be a legitimate concern to privacy advocates—certainly more legitimate than what he calls "old-school" concerns about "fairly anonymous" cookie data and IP addresses being a privacy concern. But, he pointed out, if privacy advocates are going to be concerned about those individual profiles, they should also start worrying about similar profiles kept by Microsoft and Yahoo, both of whom passed the PIs privacy ranking. Next Page: Enter the law

Lisa Vaas is News Editor/Operations for 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, 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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