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Euro data protection chief backs Google despite inquiry

By Paul Meller, IDG News Service
May 25, 2007 06:55 AM ET

IDG News Service - Data protection officials from 27 European countries have warned Google it is storing data on people's searches for too long -- but Europe's top privacy guardian, the European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx, believes Google's efforts to respect the privacy of European citizens in its Internet search software "is not just window dressing."

His comments at a conference in Amsterdam on Thursday come a week after the data protection officials wrote to the company, expressing concerns that the company could be breaching European laws by holding on to details about people's Internet searches for too long.

The officials from each of the 27 member states of the European Union sit on a Europe-wide data protection committee called the Article 29 Working Group, which is chaired by Hustinx.

The group has asked Google to justify why it needs to retain the data for up to two years, and whether the company has "fulfilled all the necessary requirements" on data protection.

European Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini said Friday that the questions posed in that letter are "legitimate."

But speaking on the sidelines of a data protection conference in Amsterdam, which Google's global privacy chief Peter Fleischer was also attending, Hustinx played down the inquiry.

"I see a company which has very powerful tools, thinking about integrating privacy solutions -- that's the big picture," he said.

Google's efforts to respect people's privacy "isn't just window dressing, but we will hold them to what they are saying," he added.

His comments came directly after Fleischer made a presentation explaining how Google's personal search function works. Users can opt in to this more refined search tool, using a log-in identity and password. Once they have done so, the search engine takes their Internet searching history into consideration when picking results for new searches.

For example, if you have been searching for cars recently and you tap in the search term "golf", the results will focus on cars of that model rather than on the sport, Fleischer explained.

Users of the personalized search function can delete searches they made in the past, in order to prevent them influencing the search results they get in future, Fleischer added.

By allowing people to opt in to the personalized search function and by giving them the ability to customize their search history, Google was respecting people's privacy, Fleischer said.

Google stores information about all searches, both personalized and normal, he said, but details of normal searches can't be linked to an individual.

"Google does have the information but it can't link it to you," he said.

In the past, Fleischer has said that the company needs to keep details of people's searches for security reasons, to help guard against hacking.

Information about people's searches can also help track criminal activity such as child porn rings, but security agencies are mainly interested in the information Google stores on the users of its e-mail service, Gmail, he said.

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