Microsoft responded to privacy concerns of the Article 29 committee, an organization made up of data protection officers from the countries of the European Union, by announcing that it will change its Bing search data retention policies and purge IP address data after six months. The concession by Microsoft illustrates the ongoing struggle between privacy and progress.
What Works for Search
If search providers like Microsoft and Google could operate in a privacy vacuum, they would retain as much data as the storage capacity of their data centers could hold. Historical data of search habits and patterns is like gold to a search provider.
Google has faced privacy challenges with almost everything it touches. Its dominant position in the search engine and online advertising arenas make privacy advocates paranoid–or at least extraordinarily cautious.
Combine that with Gmail, Google Voice, Google Street View maps, and other Google services, and it seems reasonable to at least consider the worst case scenario possibilities that could occur with so much personal information in one place.
As a user interested in finding the most relevant search results as fast as possible, you want the search provider to be able to fine tune the way search results are generated. The more search providers can retain and analyze search result information, the more they can tweak the algorithms used to deliver search results.
If the provider can determine your interests and inclinations based on your Web surfing habits, and you past searches, and which results you have actually clicked on, it can use that information to present you with search results that are uniquely suited for you. When it comes to online advertising, it would make sense to only bombard you with banner, display, and pop-up ads that are at least related to products or topics you are interested in.
Privacy is also a growing concern for social networking, which is on a collision course with both search results and targeted online advertising. The more information that is shared with the social networking site and the public in general, the more social networking can succeed in connecting like-minded users with similar interests or histories–like high school buddies, long lost friends, and previous co-workers.
What Works for Privacy
From the point of view of privacy advocates, almost everything about search indexing, social networking, and other Internet services goes against the fundamental core principles of protecting privacy.
Perhaps a prominent businessman is considering pursuing political office. Maybe a famous entertainer has a drug problem. Bringing it down to mere mortals, maybe a wife is cheating on her husband and considering divorce, or a spouse frequents fetish porn sites.
Any one of those scenarios involves an expectation of privacy. The individuals would not want future search results–which may be done with others present–to reflect the Web surfing and online searches conducted previously in private.
From a more Orwellian, Big Brother point of view, privacy advocates also have concerns about how accumulated Web and search data could be used to profile individuals. Information gathered by search providers could be used to identify political affiliation, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and other personal details which could be used to discriminate against specific groups.
Striking a Balance
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stirred the hornet’s nest with recent statements about online privacy. Zuckerberg’s message was correct, though, in that privacy–or the balance between privacy and progress–is evolving.
As an Internet-using, social networking society, we want custom search results, tailored online ads, and relevant social connections. To achieve those things, search providers and social networks have to be granted some latitude to store and analyze information and gather pertinent details that can be leveraged to meet those goals.
Just as in politics, religion, and other controversial topics, there will always be extremists on both sides of the debate who will never be satisfied and never accept a compromise. No matter which side the extremists are from, they have to essentially be ignored so that a fair balance can be established that allows for the continuing evolution of technology and the way we use it, while also including adequate and reasonable safeguards for our privacy.
Tony Bradley tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW , and can be contacted at his Facebook page .