Google and other online services have long been criticized for collecting unimaginable amounts of data on its users, such as what they've searched for. And many of them keep that personally identifiable data indefinitely, raising privacy concerns. That's about to change, at least in Google's case.
Good thing, since there have been recent incidents that highlight the privacy threats that data pose, such as AOL's release of private data on individuals last year and the Department of Justice's 2005 subpoena requesting months of search data from several search sites, which Google refused to do.
So what Google's announcing now is a change in its privacy policies intended to reduce the potential for misuse of data. By the end of the year or so, it plans to make the data in its server logs anonymous after 18 to 24 months. More details here and here from Google.
It's not actually deleting that data, only making it for all intents and purposes anonymous. Why keep the data at all? Various legal reasons, but also to help Google offer services, such as those spell-checking tips when you do a search with a misspelled word, and reduce spam.
In any case, privacy advocates like what they hear so far. "It's a good step in the right direction," Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me today. He'd like more, though: a shorter period of holding personally identifiable data, as well as more clarity on other data Google may hold. Also, as long as somebody's asking, he wishes Google would use whatever clout it has in Washington D.C. to lobby for updated privacy laws.