Google Urged To Let Personal Data Fade Away

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Researchers say personal information should “degrade” – becoming less specific over time – to protect users’ privacy

Rather than amassing personal data and holding on to it as long as legally possible, companies such as Google should allow the data to degrade over time, according to researchers.

In an interview with the BBC this week, Dutch researcher Harold van Heerde discussed his work on the idea of allowing data to becomes less specific over time. Letting the specifics gradually disappear could protect consumer privacy while also meeting the needs of service providers, he said.

GPS… to street name… to city

For example, in the case of location information in a service provider’s database, van Heerde said that specific GPS co-ordinates could gradually be exchanged for a street name, followed by a post-code and then only a city name. “You can slowly replace details with a more general value,” he explained.

The work carried out by van Heerde into data usage was outlined in a recent paper A framework to balance privacy and data usability using data degradation published in the Proceedings of the International Conference on Computational Science and Engineering.

“Data degradation gives users and service providers a fine grained control over the price to be paid, in terms of privacy risks, and to optimise their common interest: balancing privacy and data usability,” the paper states.

Google Could Benefit

The paper specifically names companies which it believes could benefit from the technology. “Google can reach over half a billion unique individuals each year, collecting—among many different types of personal data—their search queries, which to a high extent encapsulate their daily lives,” the paper explains.

Google is currently being investigated by European and US authorities over the recent WiSpy incident in which information was collected by the company’s Street View camera cars.

Facebook has also come in for criticism of late for its privacy policies. The company recently made a major overhaul of its privacy systems. Facebook is also facing a challenge in the shape of Diaspora which hopes to use a more open approach to privacy to encourage users away from the social networking giant.

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