Google boosts web privacy

Search giant aims to anonymise internet user data that could be used to identify people.

Google is looking to prevent data on user's search habits from being used to identify people using the internet.

The web search company said it is taking steps to anonymise, or obscure details, after 18 to 24 months on the surfing habits of tens of millions of web users that could potentially be used to identify individuals.

The company collects information on searches, such as the keyword queries, internet addresses and "cookies" used by websites and advertisers, to track surfing habits.

The company stores data in massive computer datacentres in various locations around the world.

"Previously, we kept this data for as long as it was useful," Google officials said in statement.

"Unless we're legally required to retain log data for longer, we will anonymise our server logs after a limited period of time."

Server log data are the endless files of words and numbers that computer administrators use to manage and track website activity. Google plans to implement the policy within the next year, it said.

In order to keep Google search as easy and convenient to surfers as they repeatedly return to Google's search site, the company said it is necessary to keep limited personal details that tie a user to a computer so that Google's computers can tailor the search to the user's interests.

In promising to make these mounds of personal data anonymous after a period of up to two years, the company is responding to fears expressed by privacy advocates and some government regulators in the US and Europe at the privacy dangers if such data were ever publicly exposed.

"By anonymising our server logs after 18-24 months, we think we're striking the right balance between two goals: continuing to improve Google's services for you, while providing more transparency and certainty about our retention practices," the Google statement said.

Google also said it was taking additional steps to design privacy protections into Google products.

These include an "off the record" feature in its Google Talk instant message system making it easier for users to temporarily disable the automatic archiving of conversations, and a "pause" feature in its Google Desktop software, which scours the contents of a user's computer to make it easier to search for documents or other information.

Google cautioned that data retention laws in some national or regional jurisdictions could obligate Google to retain webserver logs at some point in the future.

It also noted that some personalised services Google offers, such as a "search history" - a computerised memory of your surfing habits - are based on users voluntarily allowing Google to retain data.

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