What Google knows about you.
be able to target ads at you based on logs that Google says it cannot make available to you -- for privacy reasons. <p>Ghosemajumder acknowledges that the situation isn't perfect. "In some cases there is [transparency], and in some cases there isn't," he admits. But he says Google is "trying to come up with more ways to offer transparency." <p>Privacy advocates fear that interest-based advertising is just the first step toward more highly targeted advertising that draws upon everything Google knows about you. "This is a major issue, because Google has been collecting all of this information over time about people and they said they would not be using that data," says Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at ACLU of Northern California. <p>But privacy advocates say Google is also doing some things right, such as launching its online Privacy Center and providing additional controls for some of its services. <p>Google is not acting alone in moving toward behavioral advertising. It is simply joining many other companies that are pursuing this practice. Mike Zaneis, vice president of public policy at the Internet Advertising Bureau, acknowledges that highly targeted advertising can be creepy. But, he says, "creepiness is not in and of itself a consumer harm." <p>The practice is unlikely to change unless users respond by abandoning services that use the techniques. But he argues that they won't because highly targeted ads are of more interest to users than nontargeted "spam ads." <p>Concerns have also been raised about Google's ability to secure user content internally. Google has had a few small incidents, such as when it allowed some Google Docs users' documents to be shared with users who did not have permission to view them. But that incident, which affected less than 1% of users, pales in comparison to security fiascoes at Google's competitors, such as AOL's release of search log data from 650,000 users in 2006. <p>In some cases there is [transparency], and in some cases there isn't. <p>Shuman Ghosemajumder, business product manager for trust and safety, Google Ghosemajumder says the privacy of user data is tightly controlled. "We have all kinds of measures to ensure that third parties can't get access to users' private data, and we have internal controls to ensure that you can't get access to data in a given Google service if you're not part of the team," he says.<p>How anonymous?<p>Bowing to pressure, Google has made other concessions as well. <p>Google doesn't delete server log data, but it has agreed to anonymize it after a period of time so that the logs can't be associated with a specific cookie ID or IP address. After initially agreeing in 2007 to anonymize users' IP addresses and other data in its server logs after 18 months, it announced last September that it was shortening that period to nine months for all data except for cookies, which will still be anonymized after 18 months. "All of our services are subject to those anonymization policies," says Ghosemajumder. <p>Critics complain that Google doesn't go far enough in how it anonymizes personally identifiable data. For example, Google zeroes out the last 8 bits of the 32-bit IP address. That narrows your identity down to a group of 256 machines in a specific geographic area. Companies with their own block of IP addresses also may be concerned about this scheme, since activity can easily be associated with the organization's identity, if not with an individual. Even anonymized data can be personally identifiable when combined with other data, privacy advocates say. <p>Sensing an opportunity, and facing similar criticisms, competitors have tried to go Google one better. Rather than anonymizing IP addresses, Microsoft deletes them after 18 months and has proposed that the industry anonymize all search logs after six months. Yahoo anonymizes search queries and other log data after three months, and the Ixquick search engine doesn't store users' IP addresses at all.<p>Perhaps the biggest concern for privacy advocates is how the treasure trove of data Google has about you might end up in the wrong hands. It is, says Bankston, a wealth of detailed, sensitive information that provides "one-stop shopping for government investigators, litigators and others who want to know what you've been doing." <p>Privacy laws provide little protection in this regard. Most policies -- including Google's -- don't provide an explicit guarantee that the company will notify you if your data has been requested through a court order or subpoena. "The legal protections accorded to data stored with companies [and] the data they collect about you is very unclear," says Bankston. <p>The industry still relies on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, a 22-year-old privacy law that even the government has argued doesn't apply to online data. "Google has yet to state a specific position on whether and how that law protects your search logs," Bankston says. <p>Privacy groups want Google to reveal just how many requests it receives from litigators and law enforcement and how it responds to those requests, but the company, like its competitors, does not release that information. <p>Google declined to elaborate on why it's not more forthcoming in this regard, but deputy general counsel Nicole Wong did say that it complies with legal requests "narrowly, appropriately and in accordance with the law." <p>In at least one high-profile case, Google has taken strong measures to protect the privacy of its subscribers. When Viacom issued a subpoena for the viewing records of Google's YouTube subscribers, it fought the subpoena and turned over only anonymized data that it says can't be traced back to individual users. <p>But privacy watchers question what happens to the thousands of requests for individual records in less prominent cases. Google's response: "Our overarching principle is we want to notify users," says product counsel Mike Yang. <p>"For a company with so much data, they have a responsibility to be innovative, proactive and pro-consumer in the area of privacy," said Pam Dixon, executive director, World Privacy Forum <p>The ACLU's Ozer thinks Google should collect less data and store it for shorter periods of time. That's one of her suggestions in a 44-page privacy and business primer for Web 2.0 companies published by ACLU of Northern California. <p>With lawmakers focused on the economy, privacy groups say it's unlikely that laws will change anytime soon. But they -- and regulators -- are pressuring Google to provide leadership and set the example. "For a company with so much data, they have a responsibility to be innovative, proactive and pro-consumer in the area of privacy," Dixon argues. <p>Parting with a certain amount of personal information is part of the bargain you strike when you sign up for free Web-based software and services. "People should have visibility into what information is being collected and how it will be used, and they should get to choose what they share and control who can access it," says Fleischer. <p>But the tension between your desire for privacy and Google's need for flexibility in handling your data is likely to be an ongoing dance. "Google's business is to make money from the information it gathers from its users. It will always be a give-and-take," says Bankston. <p>Eventually, updated privacy laws -- and the choices users make -- will delineate what is acceptable and what is not. "Our business model depends completely on user trust," says Yang. Part of Google's challenge is to build that trust without severely restricting the business's ability to innovate. <p>Google has done a good job on the trust side, Bankston says. He just wants to see it give users more transparency and control. "We don't want Google to stop innovating," he says. "We just want the law to keep up so that this data is safe."<p>Copyright 2009 IDG Middle East. All rights reserved.
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|Publication:||Network World Middle East|
|Date:||May 12, 2009|
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