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June 11, 2007

Is Google the Worst on Privacy Issues?

Google is under fire from advocacy group Privacy International for the company's privacy practices.  Google, as does a number of large online concerns, records identity information and has the ability to link surfing habits to to identities.  It is hardly a secret that these large concerns have vast quantities of user data stored in servers.  They use this information to tweak their offerings and to generally conduct business. 

Google takes a bit of umbrage at the dead last ranking it received from the group, saying that it works hard to protect user data.  Google suggested that Privacy International has a bias towards Microsoft.  The group took counter-umbrage and demands an apology in an open letter to Google.  They also accuse Google of a "smear" campaign.  Nothing like this kind of dust-up to gather publicity.  It should be noted that none of the twenty firms noted in the report got a favorable rating.

Counter this with another look from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.  Americans, at least, show high concern about their privacy on the web.  Here are some quotes:

• 86% say internet companies should ask permission to use personal information.
• 84% concerned about businesses and people they don’t know getting personal information about them and their families and disclosing it without permission.
• 54% believe Web-site tracking invades their privacy; 27% say it’s helpful.
• Ask me first: I’ll bargain with you: 54% have provided personal information in order to use a site; 10% say they would.

Yet:

• 79% of internet users have used the internet to get health information
• 67% have given up personal information to buy something online
• 62% have given up personal information to make travel reservations
• 58% have visited web sites where they get support for medical conditions or personal problems
• 41% have done online banking
• 38% have paid bills online
• 25% have made friends with someone they had never met offline

It seems that while the concern is there, it hasn't stopped a good number of people from giving out personal information to get something they wanted.  The Pew data does identify about a quarter of the American Internet user population as privacy fundamentalists who would not give out information under any circumstances.  The Privacy International report probably resonates with that segment.

The European Union has some issues about Google's data retention, specifically the fact that Google cookies have a lifespan of about 30 years.  Reports indicate that Google approached the EU on the issue and that the body investigating Google's practices has no legal powers and no binding opinions.  The DoubleClick purchase should bring privacy safeguards to the fore during antitrust scrutiny, but not necessarily where they would derail the buy.

I suspect that despite this pronouncement by Privacy International that user habits will not change, that governments will not be spurred to action to restrict data collection, and that privacy practices may change as a matter of doing business.

Details are in BBC News, USA Today, and Wired News.  The Pew Presentation is here.  Privacy International is here, with links to their report and other related documents.

June 11, 2007 | Permalink

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