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Let's say you want to find out what happened to that cute guy in high school. Whatever happened to him? What did he do? Well, what do you do? You Google him of course, right? But maybe you don't know that every time you Google anybody or anything, a digital record of your activity is stored. Yesterday, though, Google announced that it will alter some of that data periodically so that it cannot be traced back to individual users. Our tech contributor Xeni Jardin has more.
XENI JARDIN: Each time you type a query into Google, the search engine gathers and stores information about you. What you searched for, the numeric address of the computer you're searching from, and other details about your web browsing. Peter Fleischer is an attorney with Google.
Mr. PETER FLEISCHER (Attorney, Google): Previously, you know, we kept logs data for as long as it was useful to us. And when I say useful, I mean useful to help us develop and improve our services and to protect the services from attacks and security hack attempts.
JARDIN: Before, there was no limit on how long they'd find your search information useful. But now Google will retain it for a maximum of 18 to 24 months unless required by U.S. or foreign law to keep it for longer.
Mr. FLEISCHER: Some people have asked me, well, how did you come up with the 18 to 24 months? You know, that was a balance between our internal needs to improve our services, but also to prepare to comply with these data retention laws in Europe - and there may be one in the U.S. as well - that would require us to retain data. Those are sometimes conflicting laws, and when you're a company that operates across borders, you just have to take it all into account.
JARDIN: In other words, Google crafted this new policy so it would comply with as many different countries' laws as possible.
Mr. FLEISCHER: This is a good first step in terms of improving Google's privacy practices.
JARDIN: Attorney Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, says the next step would be for Google to take more of a role in advocating for stronger privacy protections to be written into U.S. law.
Mr. KEVIN BANKSTON (Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation): It's important to understand that the laws surrounding the privacy of your communications were written 20 years ago. Because of Google's preeminence in the industry, I think it has a duty as a good corporate citizen to be very active on Capitol Hill, agitating for updates and improvements to that law so people can use their services and other online services without fear of someone prying into their records.
JARDIN: We don't know how often Google receives subpoenas from law enforcement for our search records or how often Google complies. A year ago I did a story on once instance in which the Department of Justice demanded billions of web addresses and two months of user search queries from Google. Fleischer says the company challenged this request.
Mr. FLEISCHER: And the judge agreed with us, that the government had given us an excessive request and shouldn't be given the data. So we look at these things very, very closely and we always keep in mind the need to protect privacy of our users. That's fundamental.
JARDIN: Other search engines, including MSN and AOL, complied with the Department of Justice request. But those companies fault Google for tying computer addresses to storage search records in the first place. An AOL spokesperson says they don't do this at all, and a Microsoft spokesperson says its MSN search follows a similar policy to AOL's.
For NPR News I'm Xeni Jardin.
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