Feeds

Google's IP anonymization fails to anonymize

Privacy theatre

Build a business case: developing custom apps

In telling the world it will anonymize user IPs after only nine months, Google has appeased EU regulators. At least in part. But it looks like Mountain View's new policy is just another example of Google Privacy Theatre.

On Monday evening, when Google deputy counsel Nicole Wong trumpeted the new nine month policy to Silicon Valley's Churchill Club, she said the company was still mulling "the implementation details." But later in the week, the company outlined its plan with a few terse sentences tossed CNet's way.

After nine months, the company has confirmed with The Reg, Google will "change some of the bits" in the user IPs stored in its server logs. But as the plan stands now, it will leave cookie data alone.

This means the missing bits are easily retrieved.

More than a year ago, the company said it would "anonymize" its server logs after eighteen months. And sometime between March and July, it actually put this plan into action. (The company won't get more specific on dates, perhaps because it originally told the world the new policy would arrive in March).

In this case, anonymize meant "change some of the bits in the IP address in the logs as well as change the cookie information." Google now says it erases exactly eight bits from a user's IP, but it has yet to explain what it actually does to the cookie data. Whatever it's doing, it assures regulators that this eighteen month policy is "a significant addition to protecting user privacy."

Google stresses that its new nine month policy is still very much in the works. "I want to clarify that we are still working out the technical details," a company spokeswoman told us. But it looks like Google will erase fewer than eight IP bits under the nine month plan - without touching cookie info.

"After nine months, we will change some of the bits in the IP address in the logs," the company says. "After 18 months we remove the last eight bits in the IP address and change the cookie information...It is difficult to guarantee complete anonymization, but we believe these changes will make it very unlikely users could be identified."

You can debate whether erasing a few bits actually anonymizes an IP address. But as CNet points out, if your cookie data remains intact, restoring the full IP address is trivial. Google may erase some IP bits on your nine-month-old search queries, but those bits will remain intact on your newer queries - and both sets of queries will carry the same cookie info.

Google argues that users can always delete their cookies. "We have focused on IP addresses, because we recognize that users cannot control IP addresses in logs," the company says. "On the other hand, users can control their cookies.

"When a user clears cookies, s/he will effectively break any link between the cleared cookie and our raw IP logs once those logs hit the 9-month anonymization point. Moreover, we are still continuing to focus on ways to help users exert better controls over their cookies."

Of course, most people don't even know what a cookie is. And if you don't clear Google cookies on your own, they expire only if you die or go to prison. ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
KDE releases ice-cream coloured Plasma 5 just in time for summer
Melty but refreshing - popular rival to Mint's Cinnamon's still a work in progress
Leaked Windows Phone 8.1 Update specs tease details of Nokia's next mobes
New screen sizes, dual SIMs, voice over LTE, and more
Mozilla keeps its Beard, hopes anti-gay marriage troubles are now over
Plenty on new CEO's todo list – starting with Firefox's slipping grasp
Apple: We'll unleash OS X Yosemite beta on the MASSES on 24 July
Starting today, regular fanbois will be guinea pigs, it tells Reg
Another day, another Firefox: Version 31 is upon us ALREADY
Web devs, Mozilla really wants you to like this one
Secure microkernel that uses maths to be 'bug free' goes open source
Hacker-repelling, drone-protecting code will soon be yours to tweak as you see fit
Cloudy CoreOS Linux distro declares itself production-ready
Lightweight, container-happy Linux gets first Stable release
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Maximize storage efficiency across the enterprise
The HP StoreOnce backup solution offers highly flexible, centrally managed, and highly efficient data protection for any enterprise.