Some webmasters may know of Google’s Maile Ohye through her work in Google Webmaster Central, but now she plays a new role explaining issues about search privacy, in a new video from Google. It’s the first of several videos on the subject that Google has announced that it will be doing. I found the first one very good — something I would have happily pointed in the past, when I’ve had to explain some key privacy issues.
The video is here, or you can watch it below:
It explains how a search query, IP addresses and cookies are all gathered and associated together but in general don’t positively identify a particular searcher with a particular search.
Google Anonymizing Search Records To Protect Privacy from me does a similar explanation, including the idea of an IP address as a internet telephone number. But watching the video, though more time consuming than reading, still felt easier to understand. I especially liked how the way the log anonymizing program that Google (and now others) plans was compared to a credit card number having parts of it blocked out for better security.
I really only had a few qualifications with the video.
First, while it’s true that an IP address generally can’t be linked back to a particular person, you might well be able to trace it back more closely than just to a city. For example (and ironically), Vanessa Fox who formerly ran Google Webmaster Central recently confirmed that she visited someone’s web site after they analyzed their logs and noted that someone staying in the Drake Hotel in Chicago had come to visit. The log data told this person that much — and knowing she was in the city for a conference, helped in making an educated guess.
This is a fairly unusual situation, and Vanessa still wouldn’t be positively known as the person doing the visit, if she hadn’t confirmed it. But yes, IP addresses can get more specific than the city level. Still, for a four minute video, keeping things general is fine.
A bigger issue is that the video doesn’t explain that you’re fairly anonymous as long as you aren’t logged into Google. If you do log into a service, such as Gmail, you are much more closely identified with your searches. Google Search History Expands, Becomes Web History from me explains this more.
Of course, the blog post notes that future videos will be coming to explain the issue of being logged in. So viewed as part of a series, this will be less of a concern.
One last thing is the video doesn’t explain why if Google knows so little about you that it is adding that extra layer of security by anonymizing logs. The reason, of course, is that however remote the chance, Google might accidentally release log data. Far more likely is that Google might be compelled by some government action to release the data.
In either case, if you have a lot of data tied to even an anonymous cookie, you might be able to build profiles of people and guess at who they are — which is what happened with AOL last year. That’s how the anonymization gives an extra layer of protection — and I hope a future video will explain this aspect.
Overall, thumbs up. It had relatively little spin and some helpful info.