Big Brotherhood

Just because you’re paranoid, thatdoesn’t mean they aren’t watching you…

Microsoft Will Discard Search Data Sooner If Rivals Do Same
Jeremy Kirk, IDG News Service
Tuesday, December 09, 2008 09:30 AM PST

Microsoft will anonymize and discard data collected from search queries much sooner than it does now if its rivals do the same, the company said Tuesday.

Microsoft has endorsed European guidelines that suggest search engines should not keep sensitive information, ranging from IP (Internet Protocol) addresses to information from tracking cookies, beyond six months without heavily anonymizing the data.

The guidelines, released in April, were created by European Commission’s Article 29 Data Protection Working Party, which is comprised of data protection officials from 27 European Union countries. Companies running search engines were due to file responses to the guidelines this week as the working party meets in Brussels. Microsoft outlined its position in a letter.

Whether the guidelines will turn into enforceable law remains to be seen. European data protection law now does not set a specific time limit for how long data can be retained, said John Vassallo, vice president of E.U. affairs for Microsoft.

Privacy activists warn that search engine data can reveal a plethora of information about a person and is retained for far too long by companies. Major search players such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have in the past argued they need data in order to improve their services.

The data protection authorities in different countries could choose to force technology companies to abide by the guidelines, Vassallo said. Technology companies are due to hold talks with the working party early next year, Vassallo said.

Microsoft believes the industry should endorse the six-month standard. However, the company won’t change its current policy unless all in the industry agree to the standard, Vassallo said. Microsoft, which holds only 2 percent of the European search market, is desperately trying to increase its search market share.

Vassallo said Microsoft was a “latercomer” to European search, and that moving to the six-month standard on its own would result in “a very unlevel playing field.”

Microsoft retains search data for 18 months before anonymizing it. In September, Google said it would anonymize IP addresses connected to specific searches that are recorded in its server logs after nine months. Google, which holds about 80 percent of the European search market, previously did that after 18 months. Yahoo anonymizes data after 13 months.

Google did not have any change in its position when contacted Tuesday. The company continues to work with data protection officials and privacy advocates, according to Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel.

The important point in the story is that Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and every other search engine is keeping tabs on you. Of course, we always knew they could, but we need periodicreminders that they really are watching us. Running in high-security mode, blocking all cookies, can be a pain. So many sites are using cookies and Web 2.0 technologies, that you seriously handicap yourself if you try to run without them. As a reasonable compromise, I recommend three measures:

  1. If you really need to visit web sites or run searches for which you want no public record, try using an anonymizer. Even that is not entirely anonymous. The service provider will still know who you are. If you ever log into a web site through an anonymizer, don’t ever log into that same web site without it.
  2. Periodically clean all cookies, temporary files, logs, profiles, etc., from your computer. Log into your computer with an alternate administrator account and delete all other user profiles. Then log back into the computer using your regular account and run a cleaner such as CCleaner.
  3. Periodically wipe your computer clean and reinstall everything. If you are familiar with disk imaging utilities such as Ghost, you can save yourself a lot of time here. When you have everything installed on your computer exactly as you like it, create an image of your hard drives. When you want to start over, just reapply the image. Be sure to make regular backups of your data files. But you do that already, right? Right!?

If you want to get really fancy, look into using virtual machines andnon-standard, open-source operating systems and applications. That would really be a finger in Bill’s eye. >:-}

For the most part, Microsoft et al aren’t spying on you in order to enslave you. They’re just trying to take advantage of your habits in order to make a buck. However, the technology is there, which means that someone, somewherewants to use it for every vile purpose you can imagine. Those kinds of people gravitate into government and politics. As a matter of principle, I think you should keep your data and your life as private as possible. “If you’ve got nothing to hide” platitudes don’t cut it with people who actually use their brains and care about freedom.

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4 Responses to Big Brotherhood

  1. Triton says:

    Is Microsoft’s spying limited to its programs (like IE)? I would think that by using Firefox and Thunderbird I would avoid Microsoft’s sticky fingers.
    For anonymous browsing, there’s always xB Browser.
    And speaking of virtual machines, have you ever tried xB Machine, Jay?

  2. jay c says:

    You are more likely to remain private from MS by using a third party browser, but that’s of limited help with this particular problem. This article is talking about the information they gather from their search engine. They use cookies, ip addresses, or other UIDs, to identify the computer and user.
    No, I haven’t tried xB Machine. What can it do?

  3. Triton says:

    Well, supposedly it creates an anonymous desktop. You’re supposed to be able to put it on a flash drive and plug it in anywhere for instant anonymity. Other than that, I don’t know what it’s capable of.
    It’s free to download; try it out. I haven’t used it much because I don’t know much about Linux-type systems.

  4. jay c says:

    That sounds worth checking into. Thanks for the tip.