Balancing Search Privacy & Data Storage

Google's long memory stirs privacy concerns out today from Reuters should have been called "Search's long memory stirs privacy concerns," but as usually, everything has to be a Google issue, even the bad stuff that isn't Google specific. From the article:

Like many other online businesses, Google tracks how its search engine and other services are used, and who uses them. Unlike many other businesses, Google holds onto that information for years.

Well, maybe not unlike other businesses. We're told that ISPs generally don't hold data for longer than a month. But how about companies that mine that ISP data for various purposes such as Claria, Hitwise, comScore? They definitely keep some of it much longer.

Moreover, it's fair to say most people have no idea that their ISPs might be giving access to aggregate surfing activities that potentially show everything an individual does on the web, rather than just what they searched for.

But nah, let's focus on Google as the main element of concern. After all, they aren't getting rid of all that data! Then again, Yahoo "declined to say" how long it keeps data either. But that's not in the headline. It isn't, "Yahoo's long memory stirs privacy concerns." After all, it's just Yahoo. Who cares about Yahoo? It's not like they have anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of the search market in the US, depending on which metrics you use. That apparently isn't signficant enough.

The headline isn't, "Amazon's long memory stirs privacy concerns." But why not? Amazon's A9 lets you keep a search history and even gave you discounts on Amazon purchases for your A9 searches. They could do that because they know who you are at A9, how often you've been searching plus who you are at Amazon. But lets beat up on Google in the headline, instead. After all, the threat of what Google might do is much more fun that the reality that Amazon has already paid out over a privacy dispute before.

I talked with the reporter for this story (no relation to me, despite the same last name) and raised these type of issues. Kudos that he did ask around on the ISP data and what some others were doing. But in the end, it still ended up a Google article.

I'm quoted at the end saying you don't want Google to throw away all the queries that have been done. No, you definitely do not. That's history, folks. I want to know how people searched over time, and we'll regret not having this data if we simply discard it. That doesn't meant you have to keep everything, but there are definitely good reasons to keep some types of information for more than a few months, unlike the views of someone else in the story.

More on why and related issues are covered in my Google And The Big Brother Nomination article from 2003. See also Better Search Privacy Needs Addressing Overall for more reading on the subject. Yes, we need better privacy disclosure and reassurance for consumers. We may even need better laws protecting us from when the inevitable changes happen within corporations. We don't need a dogpile on one company over the issues.