Microsoft Joins Privacy Parade

Microsoft announced Sunday a new set of privacy principles for Live Search and online advertising data collection, use and protection. The principles delineate newly enhanced steps the company will implement to protect the privacy of Windows Live users.

Chief among the revamped privacy directives is the permanent removal of cookie IDs, the entire IP address and other identifiers from search terms after 18 months. The new policy will make search query data anonymous after an 18 month time period has elapsed.

“We have been thinking about privacy related to search and online advertising and believe it is critical to evolve our privacy principles,” said Peter Cullen, chief privacy strategist at Microsoft. “We believe our enhanced principles should be part of the industry dialog on this issue and that keeping these issues as simple as possible for consumers is the best approach.

“For instance, on search data, anonymous should mean anonymous,” he continued.

Private Property

Microsoft, the company said, has “adhered to globally recognized privacy practices of notice, choice, access, security, onward transfer and data integrity.”

Nevertheless, the search engine provider acknowledged that there is an ever-growing interest in the privacy implications of online advertising, behavioral targeting and the personalization of online services among its customers as well as privacy advocates. As it set about revamping its privacy policy it took those concerns and considerations into account, the company explained.

The enhanced privacy principles provide users with guidance and technology to help provide for a safer online experience and build privacy into the company’s software development process, according to Microsoft.

“We are entering a new age of innovative, competitive solutions to online privacy issues,” Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said. “By playing an active role in developing such approaches, and embracing a call for comprehensive federal privacy legislation, Microsoft is helping to lead the way.”

No Tresspassing

To maintain transparency, Microsoft has pledged to keep its Live Search users abreast of any changes in its privacy policy through regular updates to the Microsoft Online Privacy Statement. In addition, the company will “continue to implement new privacy features and practices as it expands its online services.” It will offer new controls to help users manage the various types of communications they receive from Microsoft, the company said.

In one example of its strengthened privacy policy, Microsoft said once it begins offering third-party advertising services on its Web sites, it will give users the ability to opt out of behavioral ad targeting by the company’s Microsoft’s network-advertising service on those Web sites. The software giant also continues to work on developing user controls to enhance privacy, including letting users search and surf Microsoft.com sites without being associated with a personal and unique identifier. The identifiers are normally used for behavioral ad targeting and permitting signed-in users to control the personalization of services they receive.

Microsoft has also promised to make all Live Search query data anonymous after 18 months unless users consent to have the company hold data for a longer period of time. The global policy is retroactive and includes permanently and completely removing IP addresses and all other cross-session identifiers, including cookie IDs and other machine identifiers, from search terms.

Microsoft has also looked at the way it stores its user data and will, according to the company, “continue to design its systems and processes in ways that minimize the privacy impact of the data it collects, stores, processes and uses.”

In one example, search terms used on the Live Search service will be stored separately from account information that “personally and directly” identifies the person, such as name, e-mail address and phone numbers.

Step in the Right Direction

Although her organization has not seen all the technical details of Microsoft’s policy alterations, Rebecca Jeschke, spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechNewsWorld, “It’s really good news for consumers that search companies have recognized the privacy risks that go along with long-term retention of personally identifiable search data.

“These moves to address those risks are very important,” she continued. “People share truly intimate information with search engines, like health worries and relationship concerns and lots of other sensitive information.

However, Jeschke noted, more could be done.

“Technical handling of data is only one part of the problem. Another is how the information is handled legally. If companies consider search terms as content of communication under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, then users’ search data get strong protection from disclosure to civil litigants and law enforcement.

“So that’s a good question to ask these search companies,” she concluded.

Taking Privacy Global

In addition, in a separate announcement Sunday, Microsoft and partner Ask.com called upon the industry to develop global privacy principles for data collection, use and protection related to Internet searches and online advertising.

The two companies will work with other leaders in the technology arena as well as consumer advocacy organizations and academics to develop guidelines that will include developing and sharing best practices to provide more control for consumers, according to the announcement.

“As search and other online service progress, it’s important for our customers to be able to trust that their information is being used appropriately and in a way that provides value to them” Microsoft’s Cullen said. “We hope others in the industry will join us in developing and supporting principles that address these important issues. People should be able to search and surf online without having to navigate a complicated patchwork of privacy policies.”

Microsoft’s news follows on the heels of announcements last week from search competitors Google and Ask.com. Google changed its practice of holding data obtained through its cookies from 30-plus years to two years; meanwhile, Ask.com unveiled a new utility for its search engine, AskEraser, with which Ask.com users can opt to have the company retain no information on their searchers.

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