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Google shamed by Low Countries search

Privacy Theatre upstaged

As Google and Yahoo! play Privacy Theatre, at least one search engine has realized your personal data is not a toy.

Today - aka Data Privacy Day 2009 - Netherlands-based search engine Ixquick told the world it will no longer log user IPs. In the past, the privacy-obsessed outfit stored IP addresses for only 48 hours, but it has now shunned the practice entirely.

"We're the only major search engine in the Internet that can make that promise," reads a canned statement from Ixquick CEO Robert Beens. "We've always been a privacy-friendly company, but now we're seriously upping the ante. We feel people have a fundamental right to privacy and we're delivering on our promise to provide it."

In September Google said it would anonymize user search data after 9 months, and last month Yahoo! said it would anonymize after six. But anonymize is a meaningless word.

In Yahoo!'s world, it means the company will delete the final octet of the user's IP, while running Yahoo! IDs and cookie identifiers through a one-way hash. And in Google's world, it means changing "some of" the bits in an IP. Full stop.

In each case, restoring user data isn't beyond the realm of possibility. And in Google's case, it's trivial.

Google may vanish certain IP bits on nine-month-old search queries. But those bits will remain on newer queries - and both sets of queries will carry the same cookie data. Recovering the missing bits on older queries wouldn't be difficult - to say the least.

Plus, Google has yet to roll out its nine-month anonymization. Not that this matters to people who fail to realize they can delete their own cookies - i.e., most of the planet.

But as Google and Yahoo! stop well short of true anonymization - consumed by targeted-ad lust and who knows what else - Ixquick has come awfully close. The Dutch search engine uses two cookies, but one expires after 90 days and the other expires at the end of each search session.

Back in November, when Google admitted to tracking your sneezes, privacy advocate/radio talk show host Dr. Katherine Albrecht quit using the world's largest search engine. And now, she uses Ixquick. She also, well, handles their US PR.

We won't repeat the praise she heaped on her own employers. But you can trust her take on the Mountain View Chocolate Factory. "Google can make all the promises it wants about not sharing data with the government and marketers," she says. "But there will come a day when they will be pressured into releasing user data - through subpoenas, through court cases."

Or perhaps they already have. How many National Security Letters, we ask, have landed on Google's doorstep? ®

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