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Data protection watchdogs' letter to Google goes public

Questions length of storage time before anonymisation

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A letter from an influential group of privacy experts in Europe saying that Google's new privacy policies appear to breach the requirements of the EU's data protection regime was published today.

Previously, Google operated a policy of retaining search queries and identifying information, such as Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, for as long as it thought useful. In March, Google's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, announced a new policy. He said that the company will keep its server log data but will make that data "much more anonymous, so that it can no longer be identified with individual users, after 18–24 months."

The letter of concern was sent to the search giant on 16 May by the Article 29 Working Party, an independent European advisory body on data protection and privacy. Google has responded with a statement that it wants to have a "constructive dialogue" with European authorities about its controversial policy.

The letter is addressed to Fleischer, based in Google's Paris office. It praises Google's willingness to engage with the data protection community and contrasts that with "some of the other leading players in the search engine community."

However, the letter continues:

Although Google's headquarters are based in the United States, Google is under legal obligation to comply with European laws, in particular privacy laws, as Google's services are provided to European citizens and it maintains data processing activities in Europe, especially the processing of personal data that takes place at its European centre.

As you are aware, server logs are information that can be linked to an identified or identifiable natural person and can, therefore, be considered personal data in the meaning of Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC. For that reason their collection and storage must respect data protection rules.

The Article 29 Working Party considers a reduced storage period for server logs generated by the users of Google services as a valuable step to improve Google's privacy policies. However, it is of the opinion that the new storage period of 18 to 24 months on the basis indicated by Google thus far, does not seem to meet the requirements of the European legal data protection framework.

The Article 29 Working Party is concerned that Google has so far not sufficiently specified the purposes for which server logs need to be kept, as required by Article 6(1)(e) of Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC. Taking account of Google's market position and ever-growing importance, the Article 29 Working Party would like further clarification as to why this long storage period was chosen. The Working Party would also be keen to hear Google's legal justification for the storage of server logs in general.

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