Feeds

Google mounts Chewbacca defense in EU privacy debate

'IP addresses are never personal except when they are'

Top three mobile application threats

Over at The Official Google Rhetoric Blog, the world's largest search engine continues to muddle the debate over the privacy of IP addresses.

As the European Union questions whether IP addresses should be considered "personal data" - "personally identifiable information" in American parlance - Google software engineer Alma Whitten brings up the issue and then spends several paragraphs failing to address it.

With her blog post, Whitten points our that "the IP addresses that people use can change frequently":

For instance, your Internet service provider (ISP) may have a block of 20,000 IP addresses and 40,000 customers. Since not everyone is connected at the same time, the ISP assigns a different IP address to each computer that connects, and reassigns it when they disconnect (the actual system is a bit more complex, but this is representative of how it works). Most ISPs and businesses use a variation of this "dynamic" type of assigning IP addresses, for the simple reason that it allows them to optimize their resources.

Because of this, the IP address assigned to your computer one day may get assigned to several other computers before a week has passed. If you, like me, have a laptop that you use at work, at home, and at your corner café, you are changing IP addresses constantly. And if you share your computer or even just your connection to your ISP with your family, then multiple people are sharing one IP address.

Yes, it's all true. Your IP address can change. And sometimes, you share an IP address with others. But the same goes for phone numbers.

Sure, you can say that sometimes IP addresses don't map back to particular individuals. But this also means that sometimes they do.

"With dynamic addressing, there are circumstances where an IP address might not be personally identifiable," Mark Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told The Reg. "But increasingly, in a vast majority of cases, it is personally identifiable - particularly when it's linked to search queries that are date and time stamped."

Last month, Rotenberg went toe-to-toe with Google global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer in front of the EU parliament, and he's adamant that as time goes on, IP addresses will only get more personal. "This becomes an even bigger problem as we move to the IPv6 environment, which has plenty of address space to uniquely identify actual devices."

What's more, dynamic IP addressing doesn't always prevent personal identification. ISPs typically keep logs of when your address was what, and courts can subpoena this information in much the same way they can subpoena information from Google.

Of course, Alma Whitten goes on to say that Google has done a great deal to guard user privacy in recent months, including "anonymizing" its search logs. Um, last we checked, the company had agreed to anonymize its search logs once they're 18 to 24 months old, and anonymize meant "changing some of the bits" in a stored IP address, making "it less likely that the IP address can be associated with a specific computer or user."

Actually, it's still unclear if this "anonymization" is actually in effect. Back in March, Google said it would happen "within a year's time," and when we asked the company about its progress, it said: "We'll get back to you."

Whitten also claims that Google has "shortened cookie lengths". But as we've said before, this affects no one but criminals and dead people.

It's yet to be seen if the EU will officially mark IP addresses as personal data. But one thing's for sure: When it comes to privacy debates, Google knows how to spin. ®

Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction

More from The Register

next story
Lavabit loses contempt of court appeal over protecting Snowden, customers
Judges rule complaints about government power are too little, too late
Don't let no-hire pact suit witnesses call Steve Jobs a bullyboy, plead Apple and Google
'Irrelevant' character evidence should be excluded – lawyers
Record labels sue Pandora over vintage song royalties
Companies want payout on recordings made before 1972
EFF: Feds plan to put 52 MILLION FACES into recognition database
System would identify faces as part of biometrics collection
Edward Snowden on his Putin TV appearance: 'Why all the criticism?'
Denies Q&A cameo was meant to slam US, big-up Russia
Systems meltdown plunges US immigration courts into pen-and-paper stone age
Massive outage could last four weeks, sources claim
Ex-Tony Blair adviser is new top boss at UK spy-hive GCHQ
Robert Hannigan to replace Sir Iain Lobban in the autumn
Judge halts spread of zombie Nortel patents to Texas in Google trial
Epic Rockstar patent war to be waged in California
US Supreme Court supremo rakes Aereo lawman in oral arguments
Antenna-array content streamers: 'Ruling against us could dissipate the cloud'
prev story

Whitepapers

Mobile application security study
Download this report to see the alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, as well as the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.