Google has pummeled Yahoo! in the search market, but the struggling Web portal could take the lead in the race to know the least about its users.
Yahoo! announced Wednesday that it would begin deleting identifying details from the information it collects from Web surfers just three months after the data are collected. The new policy cuts the time that Yahoo! retains the identifying data of its search engine users by 10 months, and expands that data-privacy umbrella to the company's other online services, such as its media sites and e-mail.
More important, it trumps Google's own bid to reassure users of their privacy: In September, the search giant cut its data retention period from 18 months to nine months.
"We're really hoping to put a stake in the ground and take this issue, which has been the subject of debate for a long time, off the table altogether," says Yahoo!'s Vice President of Policy Anne Toth.
The race to cut data-retention times, however, may be largely a marketing tactic, according to some privacy advocates. More important, they say, is how identifying details are stripped from data after that time period. Google and Yahoo! both remove only the last group of eight numbers from users' IP addresses, a tactic that Jeff Chester, the director of the Center for Digital Democracy, calls "pseudo-anonymization." Given enough time, the data could still be used to piece together the identity of users, he argues.
"This claim that Yahoo! has taken a leading position in terms of privacy still needs to be examined," he says. "Yahoo! and other companies should be completely destroying these records. Even with partial anonymity there's always the danger that sensitive information could fall into the wrong hands."
Toth argues that the partially-anonymized remnants of Yahoo!'s data are only used for finding overall patterns in the company's user activity, not tracking individuals. But Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, argues that a better standard for the details of anonymization is needed. "I think this is progress," he says. "But we need provable anonymity, a technique that's public and can be examined and discussed."