Google Wants Case About Leaked Name Dismissed

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Google is urging a federal court to dismiss a privacy lawsuit filed by San Francisco resident Paloma Gaos, who alleges that her name was leaked to Web sites she visited after conducting vanity searches.

Automatically transmitting search queries to publishers -- even when the queries include users' names -- "is actually a routine and foundational aspect of the Internet," Google asserts in a motion filed late last week in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif. The search giant also argues that the lawsuit filed by Gaos should be dismissed because she isn't alleging any economic loss -- which some courts have held necessary in privacy lawsuits.

"The Complaint does not allege that [Gaos] entered search queries that would reveal personally identifiable information that could cause harm upon public disclosure by someone who may re-aggregate the data and link it to her." Google argues. "Nor does it allege that she suffered or imminently will suffer any harm from the disclosure of her name."

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Another Web company, the controversial online data aggregator and broker Spokeo, recently convinced a federal judge to dismiss a privacy lawsuit because the plaintiff had not alleged that he was injured by the information provided by the site.

Gaos' lawsuit against Google appears to stem from the recent wave of attention to privacy issues, including longstanding practices like transmitting referrer headers. In addition to Google, Facebook and Zynga also face lawsuits alleging that they violated users' privacy by transmitting data about them in referrer headers.

The issue came to the fore in 2009, when computer scientists from AT&T and Worcester Polytechnic Institute released the report "On the Leakage of Personally Identifiable Information Via Online Social Networks." They alleged that Facebook and other social-networking sites leak personally identifiable information by including users' unique identifiers in the HTTP header information that's automatically sent to ad networks.

After the report garnered press coverage -- as well as several potential class-action lawsuits -- privacy expert and former Federal Trade Commission staffer Chris Soghoian asserted that Google also leaks users' information to publishers. In a complaint filed with the FTC, Soghoian alleged that Google violates its own privacy policy by transmitting referrer headers that include search queries because those queries often contain users' names.

Google says in its privacy policy that it doesn't share users' personal information with third parties. Last year, the company rolled out an encrypted search service that doesn't pass along referrers.

In its motion to dismiss Gaos' lawsuit, Google says that transmitting search users' names to Web sites isn't comparable to AOL's infamous "Data Valdez" incident, in which AOL released three months worth of search queries for around 650,000 "anonymized" users. In that case, the queries were tied to the user who made them, so researchers were able to view every search made by particular people. Even though AOL identified the users only by random numbers, outsiders were able to piece together some users' identities based solely on their search queries.

"There is no allegation that Google disseminates users' searches in a manner that inherently identifies the user, or that Google has disclosed an aggregated database of users' searches," the company argues. "Instead, [Gaos] claims that the billions of individual disclosures of referrer header information mightbe aggregated and then analyzed by someone else so as to identify some individuals and their personal information."

1 comment about "Google Wants Case About Leaked Name Dismissed ".
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  1. Chris Nielsen from Domain Incubation, February 15, 2011 at 9:34 a.m.

    If people think they, or the information they work with on the Internet is privae and secure, they need to be educated otherwise. Even without taking steps to collect data covertly, as this article shows, there is much information that is available. Once you put a little effort into taking steps to collect that data, it's easy to get much more than users would want you to...

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