Google Promises Privacy Fixes in Its Chrome Browser

By default, Chrome collects about 2 percent of keystrokes typed into its search and address bar.
By default, Chrome collects about 2 percent of keystrokes typed into its search and address bar. (By Alexander Hassenstein -- Getty Images)
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By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Google, whose new, faster Web browser Chrome has raised privacy concerns on both sides of the Atlantic, said yesterday it was taking steps to mask the identities of people who use the tool.

The move comes as privacy advocates here and in Europe expressed concern that the browser had the potential to give Google a way to track even more of users' online behavior and create rich profiles of them.

Jane Horvath, Google's senior privacy counsel, said that the company would be anonymizing the Internet Protocol address and the cookies that track users when they type search terms or Web pages into Chrome's Omnibox, an all-in-one search and address bar.

She said Google also would anonymize the IP addresses associated with search queries typed in by users into Google's standard search bar nine months after they have been collected. "This really just illustrates how seriously we do take data anonymization," Horvath said.

But Google, which already dominates the Internet search and online advertising fields, still needs to be more forthcoming about its data collection practices, privacy advocates said.

"My main concern is the ability to collect users' Web addresses, and therefore your complete surfing on the Web could be tracked," Germany's data protection commissioner, Peter Schaar, said of Chrome. "The Web is, in fact, a second life. A virtual mirror of one's real life, with information about one's interests, activities, perhaps sexual orientation."

Schaar said that yesterday his office began an inquiry into the browser to determine whether Google was collecting and correlating personal data in violation of German data protection law.

"We're pretty confident that what he'll find is it's a very well-designed product," Horvath said.

In Europe, unlike in the United States, IP addresses in most cases are considered personal data because they can be traced back to an individual through the Internet service provider, said Schaar, who until last spring chaired the Article 29 Working Party, the European data protection commission.

On Saturday, the German Federal Office for Information Security issued a warning against use of the browser, Schaar said. Horvath, however, said that no such warning had been issued.

Google's Chrome is set up by default to collect about 2 percent of all keystrokes typed into its Omnibox -- whether Web page addresses or search terms, Horvath said. One percent is comprised of all the keystrokes for 1 percent of computer users selected randomly, each day, she said. Google also collects 1 percent of all the keystrokes typed into the Omnibox each day.

She said that the data collected may be retained "forever" to help Google refine its ability to suggest Web pages the user is seeking. But, she said, the IP address and cookie -- a string of numbers that can be used to track a computer user online -- associated with the data will be anonymized so that "there will be no way to connect it back to the individual."

Christine Chen, a Google spokeswoman, said yesterday that the exact method of anonymization had not been settled upon yet.

Alissa Cooper, chief computer scientist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said, "If all they're doing is removing a portion of the IP address, I don't think it really renders all of their logs anonymous. If you're truly anonymizing it so there is no IP address, no cookie, and no identifying information in the log itself, then there's significantly less privacy concern."

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