January 23, 2008
EU Official: IP is Personal
By Anshu Shrivastava, TMCnet Contributing Editor
addresses, a string of numbers that identify computers on the Internet, should generally be regarded as personal information, according to the head of the European Union's group of data privacy regulators.
The Associated Press (AP) reports that Germany’s data protection commissioner, Peter Scharr, who leads the EU group, is preparing a report on how well the privacy policies of Internet search engines operated by Google (News
) Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others comply with EU privacy law.
Scharr reportedly told a European Parliament hearing on online data protection that when someone is identified by an IP, or Internet protocol, address “then it has to be regarded as personal data.”
Though search engines like Google do not hold the same opinion. Google has been insisting an IP address merely identifies the location of a computer, not who the individual user is.
AP states that Scharr acknowledged that IP addresses for a computer may not always be personal or linked to an individual, as some computers in Internet cafes or offices are used by several people.
Treating IP addresses as personal information would have implications for how search engines record data, according to an AP report.
Reportedly, last year, Google cut the time it stored search information to 18 months, and also reduced the time limit on the cookies that collect information on how people use the Internet from a default of 30 years to an automatic expiration in two years.
However, a privacy advocate at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said it was “absurd” for Google to claim that stripping out the last two figures from the stored IP address made the address impossible to identify by making it one of 256 possible configurations.
“It's one of the things that make computer people giggle,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director at EPIC, told the Associated Press. “The more the companies know about you, the more commercial value is obtained.”
Google collects IP addresses to give customers a more accurate service because it knows what part of the world a search result comes from and what language they use -- and that was not enough to identify an individual user, said Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel for Google.
“If someone taps in 'football' you get different results in London than in New York,” he said.