On the Internet, Google knows if you’re a dog

Janet Babin Mar 15, 2007

On the Internet, Google knows if you’re a dog

Janet Babin Mar 15, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: One wonders whether former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s feeling left out of the economic hurly burly. He’s been unusually quotable the past couple of weeks, on everything from the housing market to the odds of a recession. Today he combined them both in a speech down in Florida. Mr. Greenspan said he doesn’t have any hard evidence yet. But he said it’s tough to look at the subprime meltdown and not see ripple effects through the wider economy.

You can find the text of what the former Fed chief had to say with a simple Google search — if you don’t might the company keeping a log of that search. Data retention’s been a sticking point with privacy advocates. But today Google promised to make its searches anonymous. Eventually. From the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio, Janet Babin explains.

JANET BABIN: Google says it will remove key pieces of identifying information from Web searches after 18 to 24 months. Google attorney Peter Fleischer says the process will be similar to what happens when your credit card or phone number is partially obscured:

PETER FLEISCHER: That’s done in order to guarantee the anonymity of the user and we’ll do something very similar.

Google says it won’t completely destroy the data. That data is potentially valuable and the company wants to be able to retrieve if necessary.

But data kept can be data exploited. Last year, AOL released the search terms of hundreds of thousands of subscribers to researchers. It wasn’t hard for journalists and others to figure out who made some of the searches.

Wendy Seltzer is a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center. She says Internet searches can be like a headshot:

WENDY SELTZER: It begins to build up a picture of you and your medical conditions and your love interests that could be something you don’t want disclosed.

Seltzer applauds Google’s new policy as a good first step to protect privacy. But Internet watchdog Marc Rotenberg was disappointed with Google’s announcement:

MARC ROTENBERG: We feel they simply should nOt be retaining search histories at all.

But Google has gone farther than most search engines to protect its users. In a showdown last year, Google fought a Justice Department subpoena for lists of search requests and largely won. Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL complied.

I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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