Google Announces Changes to Improve Privacy: Why It Doesn't Matter

Thursday, January 7, 2010 , Posted by Johnny Fuery at 1:09 AM

Originally Published 2007-07-16 15:47:38

Earlier today, Google announced that it is now expiring cookies sooner to improve privacy. Sounds good as a headline, but it really doesn't matter. It's solely a Public Relations Cover-Your-Arse exercise. Here's why.

First, the article makes two basic claims:


  • The cookie that caches your preferences data now only has a two year moving window. This is the cookie that allows Google to customize your user experience. For example, I like to display 50 links on results pages instead of 10 and opt for results only in Latin based languages. This cookie used to be stored with an expiration date of 2038. Now it's a rolling two year window, meaning the cookie expiration date is updated to "two years from now" every time you touch a google application (or, at least, the search engine -- the article doesn't make that distinction abundantly clear).

  • The server logs that record the incoming IP address and preferences ID (for the very same cookie described above) on every search query will be deleted after 18 months instead of stored in perpetuity.


Now, the preferences cookie doesn't matter because:

Do Not Disturb signs

  • If you don't use google, you're not worried about them storing you personal data, and this entire post is irrelevant. In fact, you probably have already clicked away to something else, but if you are still here, I've got some good stuff on entrepreneurship and managing real estate. Go check it out.

  • If you do use google, you undoubtedly use it more than once every two years. So whatever risks you were taking aren't going to change it very much.

  • If you are concerned about privacy, then you are either paranoid or genuinely up to no good. If it's the latter, then other than telling you to use public computers (like the library) and internet access points (yay for city-sponsored wi-fi) to search for instructions on enriching uranium, I've got nothin' for ya. Except, of course, don't be evil. If you want to understand more clearly what I mean by paranoia, keep reading below for my off-the-cuff analysis of the server logging.


Now, the server side logs are a bit more scary. This is because those logs do contain your search terms and link it to you preferences ID.

The recording of the IP address isn't quite so bad, as long as you're not doing anything really evil that would get the attention of government agencies, because for most internet users, their IP address changes on a pretty regular basis. That means that the IP address record at Google has to be cross referenced with the records at your Internet Service Provider against the time index in Google's database for that record. That's quite a bit of work, from both a political/bureaucratic perspective and a technical perspective.

The preferences ID is pretty scary if you have a google account, meaning you use gmail, Google Docs, etc., and have given them your real name. You probably did; I usually give out my real name because it's the easiest for me to remember in the event I forget my login data. This is because, despite the relatively complex relational keys, the link between your usage patterns (via preferences ID), server requests (via server logging ), and your identity (because you gave it to them) are all readily accessible in a database (or three) housed within the same corporation.

This is particularly nerve racking because the big G has a history of capitulating to government pressure. Even in the United States, government access to those records is simply a matter of issuing a subpoena. Given the current habits of American government, the idea that this would, could, or is possibly already happening is a very real concern. This is, incidentally, probably why Google is issuing this policy in the first place. You can't subpoena records that don't exist. (Which is a side note worthy of pointing out -- they're doing this to protect Google's interests, not yours.)

That being said, 18 months is a pretty long window, so whatever dangers were present until today are probably still there. If you're still worried about it, you should at least make sure you log completely out of all google services before using the search engine.

Now for a brief discussion on what I considered paranoia:

  • Believe, me no one cares that you look at naked people on the internet once in awhile. Go on with your bad self.

  • If you vehemently oppose the idea of Big Brother just on ideology, then oppose stuff like the PATRIOT act, write letters to your elected representatives, and generally make an effort to effectuate change at the Big Brother level. Google is too good of a tool to not use, and, in fact, you'll need it to change the world. If you don't live in the United States, this stuff still applies. The rules of the game just vary.

  • Google is only storing search data as it pertains to improving its algorithm. They aren't capturing keystrokes, passwords, recording your bank account balance, or otherwise recording any data that doesn't assist its bottom line. Google is a for-profit corporation, and even if they're "Don't Be Evil" edict is getting watered down with every minute increase in market share, they still (a) won't aggregiously break the law because it puts their ability to continue profitable operations in jeopardy, and (b) won't go out of their way to store data they don't need to, because there's a cost incurred both in terms of data storage (the physical media) and the ability to make sense of the deluge of data they're storing. They might, of course, track specific things in the interests of market research, but that's a macro-level question (if we build it, will 200 million people use it?), and they don't care about individual usage.

  • Your MySpace profile is probably a bigger issue.


This is a controversial topic. Let me know what you think by posting a comment!

Comments

On 2007-07-17 14:04:21 Wibbly said:
I like having the convenience of cookies so that when I click on my bookmark to Gmail I go straight there without a password. I don't however like the fact that my all my queries are logged for some unknown period and shared with who knows who for what purpose.

My solution to this problem is to use google.com for all my Google services like GMail, Google Docs etc and to use my local national google site (google.co.uk) for search. I then block cookies against google.co.uk and allow against google.com. I'm not bothered about search preferences as I don't really use them, defaults are fine for me.

On 2007-07-20 16:07:31 Louisville Real Estate said:
I think wibbly has it right. It's worth accepting the cookie for all the useful services google provides.

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