By Eric Auchard
Google Inc., faced with a mountain of data on its users' Web search
habits, is taking steps to bolster consumer privacy protections in
coming months, the company said late on Wednesday.
The world's leading provider of Web search said it is taking steps to
anonymize, or obscure details, after 18 to 24 months on the surfing
habits of tens of millions of Web users that could potentially be used
to identify individuals.
The Mountain View, California-based company collects information on Web
searches, such as the keyword queries, Internet addresses and "cookies"
used by Web sites and advertisers, to track Web surfing habits.
The company stores data in massive computer data centers in various
locations around the world.
"Previously, we kept this data for as long as it was useful," Google
officials said in statement to be made public on Thursday but provided
to reporters on Wednesday.
"Unless we're legally required to retain log data for longer, we will
anonymize our server logs after a limited period of time."
Server log data are the endless files of words and numbers that
computer administrators use to manage and track Web site activity.
Google plans to implement the policy within the next year, it said.
In order to keep Google search as easy and convenient to Web surfers as
they repeatedly return to Google's search site, the company said it is
necessary to keep limited personal details that tie a user to a computer
so that Google's computers can tailor the search to the user's interests.
In promising to make these mounds of personal data anonymous after a
period of up to two years, the company is responding to fears expressed
by privacy advocates and some government regulators in the United States
and Europe at the privacy dangers if such data were ever publicly exposed.
"By anonymizing our server logs after 18-24 months, we think we're
striking the right balance between two goals: continuing to improve
Google's services for you, while providing more transparency and
certainty about our retention practices," the Google statement said.
Google also said it was taking additional steps to design privacy
protections into Google products.
These include an "off the record" feature in its Google Talk instant
message system making it easier for users to temporarily disable the
automatic archiving of conversations, and a "pause" feature in its
Google Desktop software, which scours the contents of a user's computer
to make it easier to search for documents or other information.
Google cautioned that data retention laws in some national or regional
jurisdictions could obligate Google to retain Web server logs at some
point in the future.
It also noted that some personalized services Google offers, such as a
"search history" -- a computerized memory of your surfing habits --
are based on users voluntarily allowing Google to retain data.
Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.
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