How Long Should Yahoo, Google or Microsoft Keep Your Personal Data?

Yahoo announced today that they will be shortening the length of time they keep your personal data. This move makes their length of retention the shortest among any of their peers. Their previous standard was 13 months; a stark contrast to that of Google, who earlier this year announced they would anonymize personal data after 9 months, previously at 18-24 months.

While at first these companies had stated they can’t change how their systems keep personal data, in an about-face and through litigation it had become apparent their systems require change. Viacom’s lawsuit and the court ruling given to Google ordered that Viacom be allowed complete access to personal data; they requested unrestricted access to view every piece of log data YouTube retained. This information included usernames, IP addresses, videos uploaded, videos watched, comments and ratings… basically everything you do on YouTube. Because of the court order Google had no choice but to cough up the goods, regardless of how wrong it seemed. Thankfully, the Video Privacy Protection Act was there to save the day, and Viacom had to reduce their demand.

The EU is putting pressure on search companies to anonymize data at a point no greater than 6 months. Last week, Microsoft responded to the EU and offered up that same challenge to their rivals, stating “…it is imperative that all search companies adopt the same standard to truly protect people’s privacy.”

Important to note – any commitments these companies make about their data retention can be enforced by laws already in place in the United States.

Big deal, what does this mean and why should I care?

Everything you do on the internet is logged. Your searches, page views, clicks, the ads you’ve been served – your internet provider, your IP, the time of day – whatever possible demographic information can be retrieved. This isn’t meant to make you paranoid, but you need to be careful – be aware of the footprint you are leaving on the internet. Not only will questionable searches and websites be logged, you can make your computer susceptible to viruses and malware.

That’s scary. What can I do?

Unfortunately, creating a digital footprint is part of the deal you make when going on the internet. You ask for information and you get it, on the condition that the entity you’ve asked (and possibly others) will take information for themselves. You can reduce your tracks by doing a few simple things:

  • Delete your cookies and temporary files frequently. Browsers aren’t usually set to delete information on their own; you must give it the instruction to do so. With a few clicks, your browser can do this easily. Something you need to be aware of are the persistent cookies; these are the kind that stay no matter what you do, aside from setting fire to your machine – these may have to be permanently removed by an application designed to do so. A good tool here is knowledge, and finding out which of the sites that you visit are setting these persistent cookies so they are easier to locate and remove.
  • Keep your browser updated. Don’t give hackers the excuse to get your information. Keep up on any security or software updates for your browser. Case in point – the very recent critical Internet Explorer security flaw that has affected every single version since 5.01 (gee, how did they miss it for THAT LONG?!?). The thing about critical updates is the phrase that defines them. It means simply FIX NOW.
  • Don’t let your browser store your password! This is persistent information and could be exploited. Instead of using your browser to store passwords, use an encrypted spreadsheet program or an application to store the data. Some users have their application installed on a flash drive that follows them wherever they go.
  • Read the privacy policy on web sites you visit. Do they log your IP and send you ads based on your location? Do they sell any information from your user account? If you’ve ever wondered why your spam folder or junk email folder is full of… well, junk… you can bet a lot of it comes from the sites you visit who sell your information. Your real-world mailbox isn’t protected, either.

Do you have ideas on how to keep your information secure? Do you know of a great application or tool that will help others in doing this? Don’t keep it a secret, let us know!