Tuesday, January 22, 2008

IP Addresses are Personal Data - official

Brief but important note, via the Asociated Press: the EU Art 29 Working Party group working on privacy, DP and Internet search engines (notably Google) has issued an early press release.

"Germany's data protection commissioner, Peter Scharr, leads the EU group preparing a report on how well the privacy policies of Internet search engines operated by Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others comply with EU privacy law.

He told a European Parliament hearing on online data protection that when someone is identified by an IP, or Internet protocol, address "then it has to be regarded as personal data." "

Some may think this an obvious conclusion, but in fact a report on Personal Data commissioned by the UK ICO office a year or two back (and very sadly, no longer available on the ICO site) revealed considerable disparity on this across Europe; in many cases whether an IP adress was regarded as "identifying" depended on context, in the view of various Information Commissioners.

The significance is crucial; if IP addresses are personal data, then services which collect IP addresses but not actual names - as Google does when it collects search terms typed in by users from IP adresses - are still regulated by DP law.

Google's privacy chief Peter Fleischer has previously insisted IP addresses are should only be seen as personal data, if it is likely that a person can be identified from an IP address . (Despite this, Google recently caved in to EU pressure and reducing the duration of Google cookies from 30 years to 2 years.) He may now have to think again, at least in Europe. This should be no surprise however, as , as Fleischer himself admits, the ART 29 Working party gave the answer as far back as 2002, that if an IP address can be connected to a person (eg by the person's ISP), then it should be seen as personal data for all purposes, including use by other companies.

The UK's current law , by the way, is in Pangloss's opinion , rather nearer to Fleischer's interpretation than to Scharr's - see s 1 of the DPA 1998. So bad news may be coming not only for Google but for UK drafters and advisers.

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