Why does Google keep so much information?

Yesterday, I wrote about the “privacy paradox” and Google’s refusal to post a conspicuous link to its privacy policy on its homepage.   Today, the New York Times reports that the judge overseeing the Viacom/YouTube copyright lawsuit has ordered Google to turn over a database linking YouTube users to every video clip they have watched on the site:

The order raised concerns among users and privacy advocates that the online video viewing habits of hundreds tens of millions of people could be exposed.  But Google and Viacom said they were working to hoping to come up with a way to protect the anonymity of YouTube viewers., and

Viacom said that the information would be safeguarded by a protective order restricting access to the data to outside advisors, who will use it solely to press Viacom’s $1 billion copyright suit against Google.

It’s good that some steps are being taken to limit the use of the information.  But why is Google collecting and retaining so much information? Maybe there’s business value in keeping it, but there’s also business value in not angering hundreds tens of millions of users.  Google’s apparent taste for data retention risks a well-deserved loss of goodwill.  (Or considering people’s wayward attitudes towards privacy, perhaps not.)  I recognize that some information must be retained for a variety of reasons.  But the more unnecessary information you keep, the more likely somebody you didn’t envision — a wayward employee, a hacker, or even worse, an adverse litigant — will find a use for it you didn’t want.

The court’s order can be found here.

ADDENDUM: The Times has revised the text of the quoted portion of the article from when I viewed it earlier.  I’ve indicated appropriate changes above.

NOTE (JULY 13): See here for updates.

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As the Internet Archive shows, there is great value in preserving digital information for posterity. But sometimes, there is greater value in destroying information and doing so quickly. Information Week recounts the 2001 incident when an American spy plane was forced to land in Chinese territory after the plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet. The article notes that the U.S. crew was unable to erase the hard drives in time to protect the security of sensitive information. “Since then,” the article states, “researchers have been looking for a way to quickly erase computer hard drives to deny access to sensitive intelligence data.”

According to the article, researchers have developed an effective technique to erase hard drives in minutes rather than hours:

The researchers concluded that permanent magnets are the best solution. Other methods, including burning disks with heat-generating thermite, crushing drives in presses, chemically destroying the media or frying them with microwaves all proved susceptible to sensitive, patient, recovery efforts.

The military need for such technology is obvious and is a simple no-brainer. But additionally interesting are the potential commercial and consumer applications of such technology. According to the article, the researchers claimed the magnetic eraser could be used to quickly erase VHS tapes, floppy drives, data cassettes and hard drives. Maybe someday soon, it will be unacceptable and even illegal for corporations and government agencies to keep sensitive information — like your social security number — on easily stolen laptops, unless those machines are equipped an effective auto-erasure mechanism.