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Google Might Take A Transparency Lesson From Itself

Google's been in the doghouse recently with privacy. Last week, watchdog group Privacy International ranked Google last among its peers in privacy, while Google simultaneously tried to quell European Union concerns that the company's data retention policies didn't meet EU rules to delete unneeded data by saying it would anonymize data after 18 months. Meanwhile, the company's under heat for street-level maps that have caught people urinating in bushes and showing a little too much thong.
Google's been in the doghouse recently with privacy. Last week, watchdog group Privacy International ranked Google last among its peers in privacy, while Google simultaneously tried to quell European Union concerns that the company's data retention policies didn't meet EU rules to delete unneeded data by saying it would anonymize data after 18 months. Meanwhile, the company's under heat for street-level maps that have caught people urinating in bushes and showing a little too much thong.Still, though, Google's fastest growing product in terms of new users is iGoogle, the company's personalized homepage, which can store a host of personalized preferences for different content, and all based on usernames, rather than the more anonymous IP address Google usually stores for searches. As more users sign up with Google Accounts, they're also encountering things like Web History, which tracks a user's Google searches and trends and Web history and can provide recommendations.

It's relevant in the workplace, too. Workers could set up iGoogle tabs or an iGoogle account for whatever they need at work, say one for "finance" or another for "healthcare" that would give them the latest news and information on each. Someone who routinely does a Web search on a product or customer and clicks on the fifth link might find soon find that link atop the results list. One start-up, WorkLight, even helps financial or customer data show up iGoogle (or other places, like desktop gadgets).

Luckily, the Google personalization team puts privacy right up there with search relevance. It's optional to let Google track you, at least via a formal account. Even when signed in, users can pause the tracking, and they can delete queries later. Today, they can't pick a certain length of time to keep queries, but "you might just see it," Sepandar Kamvar, Google's technical lead for personalization, said in an interview. "If we use something that you search, we want to show it to you and allow you to change it." With typical Google searches, people don't have anything near that sort of insight or control into what Google keeps or uses. Until they do, Google will continue to be harangued on privacy.