July 10, 2007
Words are weapons, to be warily wielded. If Maija Palmer's article on the recommendations of an EU advisory committee (*) makes me raise the specter of Munich, let the reader stop at what Munich has come to symbolize: the feeble appeasement of an aggressive party by well-meaning people at the expense of those they claim to protect. Carrying the analogy to the actual historical figures would fail both sense and taste.
At stake is the right of search engine companies to collect, archive and exploit so-called personal data, a well known danger to privacy. As reported by Maija Palmer, the Working Party has obtained from Google that it keeps individual search data for 18 months only and shortens the life of its cookies, local records of its spying activity, to 2 years down from 30.
This seems terribly decent. At the time, the Munich agreement was hailed as a success too. That the new Czechoslovakia was left with indefensible borders and henceforth at the mercy of its neighbor was just a small detail.
If you believe me a crazy alarmist then, ask yourself two very simple questions.
If one really wants to safeguard individual data rights, one must outlaw both cookies and the collection of search data. Let not search companies claim they could no longer deliver their services. If they wanted too, they could let us search in privacy. But I keep repeating myself without much of an effect so far. Elephants do have an edge over fleas after all.
- what prevents Google from generating multiple cookies with staggered lives, be they however shortened?
Fleas may die quicker than elephants, the species prosper nonetheless.
- what mechanism can guarantee information, once generated, is actually erased?
In fact the proper disposal of digital information is one of the most vexing tasks there is. In 18 months, the probability that someone, somewhere, sometime, has received and kept a copy is high, despite the best intentions and the most exacting processes.