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Google backpedals on IP 'anonymization' claim

Less obscure obscurity

Google has not only opened up on how often the world's governments request user data stored on its servers. It's come awfully close to acknowledging that it doesn't actually "anonymize" your IP address after 9 months.

As noticed by longtime Google critic Chris Soghoian - now a technical advisor for the US Federal Trade Commission's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection - Google has departed from the usual false claims of anonymization to say that after 9 months, it "obfuscates" your IP. At the very least, this new language isn't as misleading as the old.

An unnamed Googler recently gave an interview to Privacy International over the company's decision to release data on government requests for your private information, and the new language appeared when he or she was asked how long the company retains unique identifiers.

"Many of our services can be used without registering for the service (for example, Google search) and therefore we do not ask for any personally identifying information" the Googler said. "For those services, we may have unauthenticated logs data and our retention policy is to obfuscate the IP addresses after 9 months and delete the cookie after 18 months."

Google introduced its current data retention policy in the fall of 2008, and it was actually implemented sometime before the November of 2009. Google has always claimed that under the new policy, it "anonymizes" IPs - even though it doesn't. After 9 months, Google merely erases the last eights bits from IPs in server logs for search and other services that don't require sign-in. And as Soghoian has pointed out, if a cookie stays intact for 18 months, then restoring those missing eight bits is trivial. Though Google erases the bits on your nine-month-old search queries, they remain intact on your newer queries - and both sets of queries carry the same cookie info.

"Obfuscate" is an improvement - though it still doesn't tell the whole story. And "anonymize" is still the word of choice on Google's website. "We strike a reasonable balance between the competing pressures we face, such as the privacy of our users, the security of our systems and the need for innovation," reads the company's privacy FAQ. "We believe anonymizing IP addresses after 9 months and cookies in our search engine logs after 18 months strikes the right balance." ®

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