Are IP addresses personal data?

.net this month (April) has an interesting piece about whether our ip addresses should be regarded as personal information and protected under the data protection act.

It would seem that this debate has been raging across Europe if not the world, with the German data protection commissioner (peter Scharr) telling the European Parliament that if a person can be identified from an IP address, then it has to be regarded as private. A recent French court, on the other hand argued that IP addresses relate to specific computers or networks and not specific users therefore they do not constitute personal data.

While it may seem an insignificant point, as to whether an IP should be classed as personal data or not, it has huge impact of the way search engines and webmasters collect data on who is accessing, and indeed how there sites are being used.

Googles spokes person told .net that it “depended on the context”, where an ISP assigns an IP address to a user, and knows that users name and address this may be considered personal data, but where an IP address is collected by a website simply as a statistic then it is not. Google store IP addresses for all users performing a search for at least 2 years to help improve their search statistics and accuracy.

The implications for all of the worlds websites and search engines that collect IP’s for statistical purposes having to treat these as confidential data, and go through the data protection procedures to protect them are huge.

Another huge implication will be to the peer to peer piracy police, where IP addresses are being used to identify, track and prosecute people illegally copying, sharing and publishing audio/video and software illegally.

This is a very grey area and I would imagine that the debate will go on for some time.

Are IP addresses personal data?