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Data protection watchdogs' letter to Google goes public

Questions length of storage time before anonymisation

The letter also raises concerns about the cookie that Google stores on the computers of visitors who do not use their browser settings to block these small text files that allow Google to recognise a return visit from a particular computer.

The letter states:

Concerning the 'google cookie', the lifetime of this cookie, which has a validity of approximately 30 years, is disproportionate with respect to the purpose of the data processing which is performed and goes beyond what seems to be 'strictly necessary' for the provision of the service, within the meaning of Article 5(3) of the ePrivacy Directive 2002/58/EC.

The Working Party suggests that Google's policy "can be further improved" to ensure data protection compliance. It requests clarification on the extent to which the anonymised data still contain "significant information" about the user and "whether it is reversible (e.g. does Google have any means of reversing the anonymisation)."

Peter Fleischer has since said that Google is "committed to engaging in a constructive dialogue with privacy stakeholders," including the Working Party, on how to improve its privacy practices.

"We believe it's an important part of our commitment to respect user privacy while balancing a number of important factors, such as maintaining security and preventing fraud and abuse," he said in a statement.

Five days before the letter was sent to Google, Fleischer had discussed Google's reasons for remembering information about searches in Google's official blog.

He cited and explained three reasons: to improve the quality of search services; to maintain security and prevent fraud and abuse; and to comply with legal obligations to retain data.

Explaining the last of these points, Fleischer wrote that "Google may be subject to the EU's Data Retention Directive".

This Directive is not yet in force, but it will require ISPs and telcos to retain certain traffic and location data for up to 24 months. Google's email and internet telephony services are likely to be caught by the Directive, though possibly not before 2009. The Directive applies only to data that are generated or processed by providers of "publicly available electronic communications services or of public communications networks". However, even if this were interpreted so widely as to catch Google's search service, it seems unlikely that the categories of data to be retained, as defined in the Directive, could extend to the content of a search query.

The letter from the Article 29 Working Party does not refer to Fleischer's blog posting.

Meanwhile, Google could also face a privacy probe in the US, where it has agreed to buy online advertising company DoubleClick for $3.1bn. The company said that consumer regulator the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has launched an investigation into the purchase that focuses on the privacy rights of its users.

Online advertising company DoubleClick collects a large amount of information about users' web surfing habits. Google does too, prompting questions from the FTC about how the merged firm will treat the data it collects.

The FTC action is an antitrust review, which will focus primarily on competition questions. "We are confident that upon further review the FTC will conclude that this acquisition poses no risk to competition and should be approved," said Don Harrison, senior corporate counsel at Google.

Privacy advocacy groups in the US have asked the FTC to question Google over its data collection and storage, while competitors such as Microsoft are said to have asked the body to investigate the deal on competition grounds.

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Related links

Article 29 Working Party letter (pdf)
Article 29 Working Party Resolution on Privacy Protection and Search Engines (pdf)

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