Chalk one up for the Google PR team. The search engine scored a public relations coup earlier this week when it announced that it would begin deleting ‘cookies’ – the little bits of data that help web sites identify their users and track their browsing habits – after two years.
The immediate conclusion of most journalists seems to have been that Google’s new policy will help allay privacy conerns. Understandable, since that’s how Google sold the story. From the Google press release:
But hold on. A CEO I spoke to yesterday, who is following the privacy issue closely, says Google’s new policy will have almost no effect on privacy. That’s because Google will reset its two-year cookie countdown each time you visit the Google site. The only way the policy would have any effect at all is if people didn’t return to the site for two years. Fat chance.
A few reporters have caught on to Google’s little PR hoodwink, including Ryan Singel at Wired:
People who go two years between Google searches on a given browser will have their old queries de-linked from their new ones. Google users who do not occasionally destroy their cookies will continue to have their entire search history recorded for posterity and potential subpoenas. Google users who sign up for an account and don’t know to UNCLICK the Web History box will have almost all of their Web usage recorded by Google.
To be fair, Google is quite upfront about all this in its press release. It also says that users who return to the Google site will continue to be able to control their cookies through their browsers. Still, for Google, or anyone else, to suggest that Google’s decision to delete cookies after two years is a big step forward to privacy is an exaggeration, at best.