Internet users criticize Google's data greed and call for anonymous services (25.07.2007)

The Arbeitskreis Vorratsdatenspeicherung (German Working Group on Data Retention), an association of civil rights campaigners, data protection activists and Internet users, sent an open letter to Google today. The group warns that Google's blanket retention of users Internet protocol addresses allows tracking every mouse click and every search made by a user for months. "The anonymisation of personally identifyable data after '18 to 24 months' as announced by Google is entirely inadequate", explains the NGO's legal expert Patrick Breyer. "According to German and European law the systematic retention of personally identifyable data on all users is prohibited."

The open letter

Berlin, 25 July 2007
Mr Peter Fleischer
Privacy Counsel
38, avenue de l'Opéra
F-75002 Paris

Dear Mr Fleischer,

in your letter dated June 10th [1] to the Chairman of Article 29 Working Party, Mr Peter Schaar, you claim that data protection is one of Google's main interests. We appreciate your willingness to improve protection of your customers privacy. Even so we are strongly concerned about Google's ongoing violation of European law.

You argue that it would not be possible to preserve your interests in security, innovation and fraud-resistance without storing personal data such as IP addresses, search logs and user behaviour for a minimum of 18 months at least. However in a democratic society it is up to Parliament and not commercial enterprises to balance the users' and the providers' needs.

For example German law specifically prohibits the retention of personal data unless it is needed for billing purposes. As most services offered by Google are free of charge, storing personal data obtained from these services is illegal. Local laws are applicable to Google, and the level of data protection should follow the laws of the country with the strictest protection of privacy.

We do fully accord with with your questioning of the EU Data Retention Directive. However, the directive is limited to E-Mail, Messaging Services and VoIP services on the Internet and does not apply to your search engine, for example. There is no reason why Google should bow to obligations that do not exist.

You give examples of why data retention is supposed to be necessary for the operation of Google services. Of course analysing user trends may be necessary for software like Google Spell Checker, but anonymised data would be absolutely sufficient for this purpose. Additionally, the protection of your servers against criminal attacks does not justify a blanket collection of personal data of all customers. Retaining data on a case by case basis is sufficient as demonstrated by several large websites in Germany that have long operated without logging any personally identifiable data. In any case, the retention of data does not, by itself, prevent or stop attacks. Moreover, dealing with fraud is the business of public prosecutors, not of private companies. Prosecutors may order the collection and preservation of data when needed.

Finally, we would like to remind you of how dangerous extensive data collection can potentially be. As a company operating world-wide, Google should be well aware that not all countries in the world are democracies. Data collected by private companies can be and is being abused by totalitarian regimes. We wonder how it is possible to pervasively filter Google search results for Chinese users while anonymising search strings is supposed to compromise the operation of Google services. Furthermore we know that intelligence agencies - even in democratic societies - use (or more accurately abuse) the data you collect in order to spy on human rights or environmental NGOs, on legitimate protest groups and local activists. The only way to prevent abuse is to refrain from collecting personally identifiable data in the first place.

For the time being, you should at least consider opening anonymous gateways to your services such as the Google search engine. We are confident that offering services without retaining identifiable data during a test phase will convince you that the security of your services will not be compromised. It may even generate business from users who currently refuse using your services because of your blanket retention practices. [2]

German Working Group on Data Retention (Arbeitskreis Vorratsdatenspeicherung)