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Schmidt explains the Google way to self-erasure

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Google bent over backwards yesterday to show that it has learned its lessons and is really finally taking individuals' concerns over privacy seriously. Honestly.

And while there were some tangible commitments, they were unlikely to satisfy the regiment of privacy activists, academics and bloggers the ads colossus had arranged to be delivered to its Big Tent privacy conference yesterday ... by coach, via the venue's goods entrance.

Alma Whitten, Google's director of privacy product and engineering, kicked off the day's defence. She flagged up Google's Data Liberation Front initiative, which commits the firm to allowing individuals who use its products to remove any information they have uploaded. Whitten, and Eric Schmidt, have promised a dashboard to achieve this with a single press of a button. Or two.

Beyond dealing with the security of information tied to individuals' Google accounts, Whitten said the firm, like any good computer engineers, sought to model threats to its users' security and privacy.

While some critics took an "extreme perfectionist way of doing this," Whitten said, "I think it's a mistake to only have this conversation about absolutes." Rather, the firm had to do "threat modelling" and decide where the security is good enough for that. "Not the security threshold for some kind of mythical super adversary."

Beyond that, she said, people had to realise that Google could manage the data it holds, and delete it if consumers demanded, but was limited in what it could do about information that has leaked or proliferated elsewhere on the internet.

"From where I sit, it looks like we're still very much adapting to the situation where the internet allows everyone to be a publisher," she said.

What Whitten didn't recognise as a privacy problem was the vast piles of data Google accumulates through user searches, cookies and the like.

"A lot of the really powerful information sets are built on information from people but not about people," she said.

This implies anonymised data, not traceable to any one individual, but delivering a great benefit – in Google's case normally an economic one, in the case of, say, the NHS, a medical or technological one.

Which sidesteps the point that people have a problem with Google collecting it in the first place. Although they could always go to another search engine of course.

Whitten said said there was no way individuals could be identified from this data and that Google anonymised data after nine months. Which makes you wonder why governments, among others, seem so intent on getting their hands on it.

It was down to Eric Schmidt to deliver a full-fat mea culpa, admitting the firm had learned the hard way that it had to work with users' data "with your permission".

Whether the reference to the hard way refers to individuals' anger over the firm's sometimes cavalier approach to privacy, or the fact that the US government started sprinkling around subpoenas wasn't totally clear.

He also made the point that the firm had withdrawn from China because of the pressures brought to bear on it by the Beijing regime, and its resistance to data requests from other governments.

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