Google: Government intrusion worse than data retention

Despite AOL's user data release, Schmidt maintains government subpoenas are a greater threat to user privacy.

What's the greater threat to online privacy, search engines storing users data or government intrusion? Naturally enough, Google CEO Eric Schmidt says it's the government, Reuters reports.

"The more interesting question is not an accidental error but something where a government, not just the U.S. government but maybe a non-U.S. government would try to get in (Google's computer systems)," Schmidt said.

The question came up at the Search Engine Strategies conference today, in the light of AOL's release of user searches that could be traced to specific users.

As to why Google doesn't purge its computers of user data every few months, as moderator Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch suggested, Schmidt said, "We have actually had that debate," Schmidt said, adding that security protections Google has put in place would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to steal customer data.

"It is obviously a terrible thing," Schmidt said of the AOL data breach. "The data that was released was obviously not anonymized enough."

He said Google has very sophisticated security plans to protect its databases. The federal Sarbanes-Oxley law also requires companies to have demonstrable procedures for protecting against not just external threats but also the risk that a company insider could release Google data, he said.