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July 2007

Is Google Protecting Your Privacy on the Internet?

Do you use Google as your search engine when looking for information on the Internet? If so, you’re not alone; on average Google gets more than 200 million “hits” per day. You might want to know that Google—the nation’s most popular Internet search engine—is collecting data about you and may be storing that data for two years.

The information collected includes the search term you typed in, the address of your Internet server, and personal information contained on “cookies” set by Google within your computer to track your Internet usage. Though it used to hold onto this data longer, Google announced in March that it would retain only two years of data due to concerns being expressed by privacy advocates. The company also announced that it would only keep this data on individuals who had “opted in” to allow for tracking of personal information.

Google argues that it is providing a service to consumers because it can “put the user in charge,” according to Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel. The company’s privacy policy can be found at www.google.com/privacy.html. In a Financial Times article, Fleischer explains Google essentially collects a person’s search information and then places it into a search algorithm to more narrowly respond to the person’s search request. He says this search equation takes individual preferences into account by using previous inquiries to give more weight to what the person might find useful.

European consumer protection officials are now raising concerns that Google’s holding of this personal information for two years is too long and are asking the company to justify its policy. According to the Financial Times, officials sent a letter in late May asking Google to justify its two-year policy, questioning whether Google had, “fulfilled all of the necessary requirements” on data protection. Separately, the Norwegian government’s privacy agency had already informed Google by letter that an 18- to 24-month data-retention policy is too long. Google is expected to respond to these government concerns in June.

This privacy criticism is not limited to those on the other side of the Atlantic. American privacy advocates have also raised alarm. For example, attorney Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation observed, “It’s data that’s practically a printout of what’s going on in your brain: what you are thinking of buying, who you talk to, and what you talk about.” Bankston continues, “It is an unprecedented amount of personal information, and these third parties [such as Google] have carte blanch control over that information.”

The Federal Trade Commission launched a May investigation into Google’s planned $3.1 billion purchase of online advertising company DoubleClick. Privacy advocates have criticized the proposed purchase because of concern that Google would possess too much data on the web habits of users.

This issue is complex and to an extent involves consumer choice. You could choose to use a different search engine such as Yahoo, but it too gathers substantial information on its users. You could choose to opt into Google’s information gathering if you want your searches to be more specific. Or you could also choose—like I have—to delete Google’s “cookies” in your computer so that it cannot track your Internet movements (this admittedly makes my future searches less focused). You could also let your legislators know that you want further privacy protections at the federal and state level to ensure Google cannot release this information to others and will protect the information so that unauthorized users cannot gain access to your personal data.

What Are Your Rights When Airlines Lose Your Luggage?

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the rate of lost luggage has increased every year since 2002. The agency lists U.S. Airways, Delta, and American Airlines as the three airlines with the worst records.

Most passengers probably believe (as I did when I flew to Michigan and my luggage flew to Alaska) that the airline will pay for your emergency clothing. However, the reimbursement policies differ by airline. Northwest and Southwest Airlines will offer small kits with essentials plus $50 for the first day the bag is lost. Northwest will provide up to $150 if the bag is lost for more than one day. Continental Airlines will provide up to $250. AirTran, the company seeking to purchase Midwest Airlines, has a relatively paltry limit of $25 per day for three days, and some airlines, like American, require advance expense approval.

Federal law provides a cap of $3,000 per passenger for permanently lost baggage. Many airlines pay less and further limit the amount they pay by excluding valuables such as jewelry and cameras. For overseas trips, this maximum amount drops to $1,500 per passenger. Also, airlines often discount the depreciated value of the lost item to pay you less than what you believe is the item’s fair market value.

Make sure to report a lost bag while you are still at the airport. If your bag is permanently lost, and the loss exceeds the value of the airline reimbursement, you should check your homeowner’s insurance policy and credit card for additional coverage. Finally, you should remember to carry all essential items—medications, credit cards, cash, etc.—on board with you.


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