back to article Vint Cerf: 'Google doesn't know who you are'

Interwebs founding father and Google evangelist Vint Cerf has insisted that when you search Google, the company doesn't know who you are. Thursday morning, at a mini-conference in San Francisco, the always entertaining Cerf sat down with Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg and other tech luminaries to discuss "open" …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Google: more evil than even Microsoft

    The love they get from media people is alarming. These people are even more evil than MS and Apple.

    El Reg needs a new icon of an evil Google overlord.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Vint Cerf...meh

    Cerf used to be a bit of a hero to me many years ago but that stopped the day he sold his soul to Google. Everyone has a price, it seems. Cerf's price was the loss of any credibility.

  3. adnim
    Big Brother

    Of course they don't

    They only have an IP address and from this they can determine the country of origin from which one uses Google services, your ISP or company that you work for and precious little else, oh and whatever methods they use to track persistent cookies. If one has a static IP then over a number of years they can get a pretty good psychological, political, sexual preference and personal interests profile of the person that uses that IP address. If you are NATed behind a corporate firewall they can get a general overview of the employee's of that company and not yourself personally. If you use real personal information when using any of Google services: Earth, Gmail, YouTube, Docs, Talk, etc., etc. they can associate that with your IP address as well as your browsing history thus creating a personal profile from your online activities. So it is up to you and the amount of truth about your personal identity you share with them.

    My advice, never accept cookies unless the site will not work without them and then use session cookies, block all Javascript where possible, block Analytics, Syndication, Quantserve, Doubleclick and atdmt plus a few others and never tell the truth when filling in a web form. Adopt at least two online persona's, one that is honest and truthful that one uses to promote oneself and/or ones business, and several for everything else, and be careful what information you share. But then again I am paranoid ;-) I have been on line for over 12 years and the only place my real name and address is revealed is in the DNS record for my business website. I have little choice there if I wish my business to appear honest and above board... Which it is. I wouldn't trust a website who's DNS information pointed to a PO Box or was empty. To be honest I don't trust any website with truthful personal information, besides what business is it of theirs anyway? They are just faceless entities, which is exactly how I like to appear to them.

  4. Big-nosed Pengie

    Cerf is now officially on my "Dicks" list

    How have the mighty fallen. And yes, and Evil Google icon, please.

  5. the_madman

    What's the problem, then?

    Google have outright stated exactly how it keeps track of your searches to show your behaviour - so what's wrong with using private browsing mode, or clearing your cookies, if you're so interested in privacy?

    Admittedly, I don't see people turning to Tor as a valid solution for the I.P address logging, but your I.P address is pretty much public information anyway - any website you visit can have access to it.

  6. RW
    Big Brother

    Bring Google cookies under control

    At one time I had a blog on Then Google assimilatedd In order to get at my blog, I had to set up a Google account. Ugh. Double ugh. My existing log in no longer worked to actually log in.

    So I registered with Google and retrieved the blog. But in the process, I tried to cut the balls off Google's snoopiness by setting their cookie permissions to "session only". Aha! Didn't work! Google dislikes session cookies. They want to put a cookie on your machine and have it stay there. We can all guess why, I'm sure.

    I got rid of the blog (no one was reading it afaict), then got rid of the Google id, then set Google's cookie permissions to none whatsoever.

    If you feel you must use those Google facilities that demand a login, when you log out, delete all Google cookies. It's a pain in the ass, but Google and their corny "do no evil" mantra are unpersuasive. They are snoops, plain and simple, and people do not like being snooped on.

    I often use Ixquick instead of Google for searches.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    re: Of course they don't

    I only use my "adnim" account when I surf porn.

    No black helo's to my IP, I'm kidding OK???!!! Vint, Google ? Help me out here ... What do you mean you don't know who I am ... shit, gotta go

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They knew who I was... (Google checkout had been used)

    And so my name and payment info (including credit card number/expiry date showed up as a payment preference because I had used Google checkout in the past, but I don't remember asking them to save my payment details, not the sort of thing I would willingly do. I removed that payment detail as I wasn't real keen on them having it. But I'm pretty sure on that they sort of know who I am.

  9. KansasCity

    Google is evil, signed BillG

    "These people are even more evil than MS and Apple"

    Sorry, it would take a few decades of lying, cheating, bribery, theft, fraud, astroturfing, and subversion (just for starters), as a basic principle of corporate practice, to match Microsoft. MS was founded on deception, can't survive without it, and has no reason to change. Although they'd give anything to convince the world that Google is evil.

    Actually, Microsoft's tactical motivation to convince us all that Google is evil is sufficient to make me automatically suspicious of any posting accompanied by the "Google is evil" spin phrase. If we're going to try to have an objective analysis of the real issues of anonymity in the growing world of data mining and retention, first let's kill all the spin doctors. (Shakespeare 2009)

  10. Gordon Ross Silver badge
    Big Brother

    @Bring Google cookies under control

    My simple answer is to always set my cookies to "Keep until I close Firefox"

  11. Dodgy Dave
    Black Helicopters

    They've created a monster...

    ...which they can no longer control. Even if they're not really evil. Ha ha.

    "we just care what you do" is bad enough for me. They'll pass on, in all 'innocence', behavioural information to third parties who can be as evil as they like with it. Very soon, I predict, the prices you see in online stores will depend on what Google's database thinks you can afford.

    Oh, and however much Google says they won't go mining its records to identify 'pre-crime' personalities, they'll happily and silently hand it over to your local law enforcers, who will.

  12. Mike Shepherd
    Thumb Down

    All your information are belong to...

    Cerf grew up in a country where commercial interests have always ensured weak data protection.

    He probably believes what he says.

  13. Mike Shepherd
    Thumb Down

    All your information are belong to...

    We have your name, address, credit card details and everything you searched for this year, but we have no idea who you are, because we don't know your favourite colour (yet).

  14. Pete 2 Silver badge

    But people don't know that Google doesn't know

    You google your name. There are thousands of hits.

    Now, putting aside what mummy dearest told us when we were young, you're NOT the centre of the universe - in fact you don't even feature in it's top 100 million "stars" However Google doesn't know that, so all the hits to your name are ascribed to you. Even though you could have an evil twin living in the same town, Google can't tell you apart. The problem comes when someone wants to research (or stalk) you - maybe to support an application, a job, check out the neighbourhood or whatever. They might read your evil twin's postings / blog or local paper reports of his/her wrongdoings and presume that they all refer to you. If nothing else, this is the overwhelming reason for not putting lists of baddies / social outcasts / crazies / terrorists / BNP members or whoever on the internet.

    Obviously the same principle applies to social networking sites as well. However on the assumption that we're all grown-ups here, the incidence of normal people appearing (to their shame?) on someone's wall is slight. Though when today's ten-year-olds reach adulthood, this may change.

    Even browsing through will only give you information about the Google searches you made while logged in. It's only these that can be tied to your Google email address and unless you give other people your Google password, they can't see what you've ben up to. (Or even tell it was you - not evil twin). However Vint Cerf is being disingenuous here. There's a truckload of data (not information) that Google retains which *could* be attributed to a person. The danger is when the searching person or entity gets it wrong and falsely assumes it was all you.

  15. jake Silver badge

    I got your IP right here ... which is why I never post anon ...

    "And as much as the company likes to say that an IP address is not personal information, we can safely say that's nonsense."

    Exactly. 'nuff said. Personally, I avoid google at all costs. Funny thing is that when I was getting my second degree, Cerf was one of my advisers ... and he tended to stress on how no network activity was ever really private. How the mighty have fallen.

    Grace Hopper is going to hit Vint right in the mouth next time she sees him.

  16. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    No sympathy

    If you just use the search engine, then the only private information is your IP address. (If Google has installed a keyboard logger in my machine, they can probably learn rather more, but I think we'd have heard.)

    If you use all the lovely "free" services, then you pay with your privacy. Frankly, I have no sympathy. Free email services are mostly used by spammer and newsgroup/forum trolls. If you are not one of those, you should sort out a non-gmail address for yourself or expect to get treated like a filthy spammer. Using gmail for any serious purpose makes filtering harder for all those you regularly correspond with. It's anti-social. Stop it.

    For the same reason, I always look forward to those "gmail hit by massive outage" stories, because they nearly always have some cheapskate sobbing about how much their business has lost.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Well if you can't be bothered Google

    And you don't know who you're dealing with, what do I care, DON'T YOU KNOW WHO I AM.?

    Google, turned from a small caring sharing family into a mere street whore.

    Who has respect for anyone like that?

    AC because, you don't care anyway.

  18. Anonymous Coward


    Cerf is a media-hack: Gordon Welchman went to SRI, and took the idea from .de of datagram transfer of packets over the radio (Bletchley, Hut 6). Guess where Cerf got educated...

  19. John Deeb
    Big Brother

    "we don't care"

    > "We don't care who you are," Cerf told yesterday's conference. "We only care about the pattern of behavior you exhibit." Which is true. But that might be read in more ways than one.

    Lets take a spin then, shall we?

    "We don't care about you or your 'privacy', whatever that means to you exactly because we're Big, part of the League of Pretty Big Things that cannot help but not caring about anything small", Cerf told yesterday's conference. "What is a 'You' anyway, aren't 'You' just a pattern of behavior with varying labels glued to it? Trust us, we are so much a part of the web - we would know".

  20. Version 1.0 Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    There's no way to be certain but...

    1. Use Firefox and NoScript

    2. Dump all cookies when you close the browser.

    3. Use DSL with a dynamic IP

    4. Request a new IP address every couple of hours.

    and realize that this just slows them down.

  21. Anonymous Coward

    evil indeed

    Google is Skynet...

  22. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Concerning Google cookies

    I'd like to know why my language preference is reset two or three times a month. I live in France, but I like my Internet in English, so I set Google to display in English. And at least twice a month, when I call up a Google page, I have to go to my preferences and reset it because the page is displaying in French.

    I don't know what Google is doing to its cookies, but I'm quite sure that it does things more often than every nine months.

  23. Graham Marsden
    Thumb Up


    "never accept cookies unless the site will not work without them and then use session cookies, block all Javascript where possible, block Analytics, Syndication, Quantserve, Doubleclick and atdmt plus a few others"

    Hear Hear! Since I installed NoScript and AdBlock Plus and set Firefox to "ask me" on cookies, I do all of that and it's had virtually no effect on my websurfing, so the argument that "they make using the web easier" is shown for the BS it is.

  24. Dick Emery


    I thought I was being smart when setting up a Gmail account by providing false details. Turns out they have all my details anyhow as the account is linked with Google checkout (More fool me) which I have used in the past so they have all my details anyhow.

    And there is no way to remove it...

  25. Jamie Jones Silver badge

    @Gordon Ross

    I hope that if you have flash installed, you have also tackled the flash-cookie sneaky thing they do which effectively bypasses your cookie pruning.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization

    by: Paul Ohm

    Social Science Research Network Working Paper Series (17 August 2009)


    Computer scientists have recently undermined our faith in the privacy-protecting power of anonymization, the name for techniques for protecting the privacy of individuals in large databases by deleting information like names and social security numbers. These scientists have demonstrated they can often 'reidentify' or 'deanonymize' individuals hidden in anonymized data with astonishing ease. By understanding this research, we will realize we have made a mistake, labored beneath a fundamental misunderstanding, which has assured us much less privacy than we have assumed. This mistake pervades nearly every information privacy law, regulation, and debate, yet regulators and legal scholars have paid it scant attention. We must respond to the surprising failure of anonymization, and this Article provides the tools to do so.

  27. Anonymous Coward

    barking up the wrong tree

    It's interesting to note that those privacy issues seem to come up only when it's an article about Google. I use yahoo's search engine and e-mail account, do you people seriously believe that neither yahoo nor bing collect data on search patterns?

    Don't get me wrong, privacy is always legitimate concern but lets stop pretending it's only a Google problem.

    I don't know how it is in Europe and other parts of the world, but in the US plenty of hospitals use software called Amalga to track patient data. Overall this software helps save lives because it lets doctors determine best course of treatment. However, it should be obvious that there's a potential for abuse if that personal data including social security numbers falls into wrong hands. Interestingly enough, you never see an article discussing privacy issues connected to medical data collection and usage. We worry more about... who is watching our search patterns.

    By the way, does anybody know who provides Amalga software and services? I'll give you a hint: it's not Google.

  28. Lou Gosselin

    All good points in the article.

    Unfortunately it's preaching to the choir.

    The masses will continue to be oblivious about the data collection. I still hear arguments like "if you don't like them, just don't use them", as if they don't collect information outside of the search engine.

  29. Knoydart
    Thumb Up


    If you want to make your mountain view not visible to our chocolate factory overlords try with an ssl option to boot if you like

  30. This post has been deleted by its author

  31. wanderson

    Search anoniminity on Google

    If I search Google - outside GMail - through a "Tor" connection, then it is very unlikely that Google will know my identity.

    W. Anderson

  32. Gordon Ross Silver badge

    @Jamie Jones

    You mean there are people who surf the web without using FlashBlock (and others) ;-)

  33. Anonymous Coward

    Heros aren't perfect

    Just because he invented the web doesn't mean that he is perfect and can't make stupid mistakes. It's like James Watson (of DNA fame) making those claims about intelligence and race. He might have been a brilliant scientist but it didn't stop him from having stupid ideas.

    As a interesting aside, the percentage of MENSA members who belive in astrology and aliens and such like is over 50%.

  34. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

    Drawing a blank

    The one and only Vinton Gray Cerf said this? The Stanford and UCLA grad, DARPA computer scientist behind TCP/IP technology, builder of early internet systems, and Google evangelist? I guess that name is supposed to ring a bell but I really don't know who he is.

  35. Anonymous Coward

    He is sort of right in the wrong way

    My girlfriend is getting her DNA tested by the insurance company she works for. She claims they won't get any identifying data but they will get sanitized data. I told her it should be trivial to figure which record was hers based on the anonymouse collection since gender, ancestry, eye color and hair color will knock it down to just a few people or just one person.

  36. KansasCity

    Get out the tinfoil hats, folks!

    "MS is arguably much less evil than Google, as they only want your money, while google wants your intelligence."

    Oh boy!

    My wife has worked as a clinician in the field of mental health for many years, and she has told me numerous hilarious stories about the clients who confide in her that they know that those men in trenchcoats carrying briefcases in grocery stores are monitoring shoppers’ thoughts, and/or publishing their thoughts for profit. (Without compensation, of course. They even turn some of their ideas into hit songs and popular TV shows!)

    Now they're joined by the "Google is evil, you would burn your computer (google is evil) and live in a cave (google is evil) if you found out what Google (google is evil) knows about you!" crowd (Don't forget, Google is evil!)

    Just take a pill. And stop posting on the Internet, please!

    Oh, by the way, Bill Gates wants to meet you and give you $10,000 for helping Microsoft in their latest astrofurfing campaign. It MUST be true ;-)

  37. Anonymous Coward

    Re: barking up the wrong tree

    "lets stop pretending it's only a Google problem"

    Nobody is pretending that at all. The only pretence is Google feeding the gullible masses and the fanbois all that the "don't be evil" nonsense. They think it is Google claiming to not be evil. The real meaning is addressed to the users: "don't be evil because we know exactly what you get up to online".

    We understand that Yahoo, MS and the others are evil. They know we know they are evil and aren't trying to claim otherwise.

  38. Gannon (J.) Dick

    @Broken Promises of Privacy AC 15:31 GMT

    After the NSA gave away the game in an unclassified paper about 5 years ago, I figured out that nobody was redacting but doing the lazy delete. The result was <> and <>. Now, five years later I can proudly say everybody is still just deleting because the NSA said it looked like redaction, and what does a little guy with a funny name know anyhow.

    That somebody might get a Thesis defense out of it gives me a warm feeling, balanced of course by the realization that I (the timestamp) just told El Reg and the World I don't have a date on Saturday night.

  39. Anonymous Coward

    I beg to differ

    “Nobody is pretending that at all.”

    Maybe you should speak for yourself only. The privacy issue seems to pop up in comments to almost every Google related article. Second thing, “Don't be Evil” is not official company motto and it's not directed at masses. It's line directed at geeks, who take delight in understanding this not so subtle Microsoft jab. And it mostly relates to MS's anti-competitive practices, not data collections.

    “We understand that Yahoo, MS and the others are evil. They know we know they are evil and aren't trying to claim otherwise.”

    Who is “we” here, conspiracy theorists? And what gives you an idea that people working at Microsoft or Yahoo view themselves as “evil”?

    I and some other people (I hope) don't view Google, Microsoft, Yahoo or any other company as good or evil; they are mere corporations driven by profits. Most of the times in pursuit of buck or quid (as some folks on the other side of the “pond” might say) they render valuable services. Other times their interests diverge from our interests, consumers', and then it becomes a problem.

    The point of bringing up the example of Amalga in my first post was not to bash Microsoft. As I pointed out, the data collected by that software has already led to numerous improvements in healthcare. Should the usage of that data be monitored? Sure. But I think that the discussion should be about benefits of data gathering/analysis versus privacy issues instead of the knee-jerk reaction “ Nooo! Google has my data, they are evil.”

    "As a interesting aside, the percentage of MENSA members who belive in astrology and aliens and such like is over 50%."

    Very interesting indeed. I'd be much obliged if I got the source of this statistic.

  40. Anonymous Coward

    @krd [MENSA survey source]

    "A survey of members of Mensa (the High IQ Society) in Canada in the mid-1980s found that 44 per cent of them believed in astrology, 51 per cent believed in biorhythms and 56 per cent believed in aliens (Skeptical Inquirer, vol 13, p 216)."

    From, an article about IQ and how it doesn't automatically equate to being smart and clever.

  41. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    The NXXXXT Step, Fording Life and Forging Links

    If you are IP Enabled and Maslowian Self Actualizing, you can easily Personally Program the Internet as if IT is a Virtual Computer Operating System with the Browser as AIdDriver and with their Pages as the GUI to Deliver First Party Needs and Receive Third Party Feeds.

    And the Really SMART Dudes working with Special Phormation IntelAIgents will always recognise Seventh Heaven Entities into High IMPact Methodologies and Boldly Conspire to Unilaterally Conceive and Oft Conceal for All Valid Reasons of CyberIntelAIgent Security and Program Protection and Projection, such Theatres of Virtual Operation from Any Mad Folly Meddling.

    ""We don't care who you are," Cerf told yesterday's conference. "We only care about the pattern of behavior you exhibit." Which is true. But that might be read in more ways than one." ..... The Latter delivers the Former, whether one cares or dares not ..... and it is disingenuous of Vint Cerf and Google to imply that it doesn't or can't, but it is understandable in mere humans.

    However, there is also still a Colossal Gulf, which is yet to be bridged and beta utilised by anything other than Pioneering Pirates in the Field, between gathering Information and using IT with Advanced IntelAIgents. And it may very well be also the case that Pioneering Pirates will Organise to Ensure that it remains so .... for their Exclusive Executive Pleasure with Immaculate Treasures ....... and that may or may not have them Taking AI a Walk on the Wild Dark Side and into XSSXXXXStreamly Sensitive Dark Matters, for Who knows what Tomorrow will Bring and to Whom and from Where.

    Life ...... AI Great Game of Magical Mystery Turing ProPortions? Of course it is,..... for a Few. And the Question they would Transparently Pose, is it AIdDefault Intelligence Available to All?

  42. Jamie Jones Silver badge

    @Gordon Ross

    I did hear that people did that! It may just be a scary rumour though!

  43. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ I beg to differ

    I'm in general horrified at the erosion of the INSIGHT in privacy. I guess 8 years of Bush/Blair indoctrination has paid off handsomely - if I see what gets posted on Facebook, and other social sites I cringe - all those who do so will pay for this later.

    Invading privacy brings profit. Google is playing fast and loose with privacy by stating that no humans will read your personal data, only machines. Oh, so because you've expanded your reach and automated it it's OK then? If I recall correctly, that's precisely what happens at Menwith Hill as well. Even their new effort "Control panel" is mostly window dressing because it doesn't address the fundamentals. It's IMHO a high price to pay for their "free" service - even the current UK government couldn't have planned such a deep mass surveillance..

    "As a interesting aside, the percentage of MENSA members who believe in astrology and aliens and such like is over 50%."

    Well, I'm in the "no" category. It is statistically possible that aliens exist, but it proves their superior intelligence that they have decided not to contact us :).

  44. Anonymous Coward


    If I have your IP address and the date/time of your "hit" from that IP address, whether it is dynamic or static, the ISP knows who is paying the bill for use of that IP address at that point in time. Yes, if you are in a large organization using a simple NAT router, I can't track you past the NAT router. Most large organizations use content filters or router logging, so from the router, they can track you to your desk & login credentials. If you are accessing from home, the authorities can know exactly what home and exactly who's ISP account. That is enough to get a warrant to search the home, as the RIAA has shown time & time again. The bottom line is that Google is disingenuous at the least, and outright liars in all probability.

  45. ElFatbob

    why so upset?

    Companies care as much about their customers as the bankers care about what we think of them.

    We exist only to have every last penny squeezed out of us directly either (by selling something to us) or indirectly (by selling something about us)..

    When you set your expectations realistically low, they don't disappoint as much..

  46. gribbler

    Who cares?

    I think the really important point to remember in this mindless debate is not whether or not google knows who you are, but why the f*ck would they care?

    People worry far too much about protecting their privacy online. I hate to spoil your narcissistic dreams, but NOBODY (probably not even your nearest and dearest, not even your own dear mum) gives a sh*t about what you have been searching for.

    The world does not revolve around you.

  47. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Re Who cares? *

    "People worry far too much about protecting their privacy online. I hate to spoil your narcissistic dreams, but NOBODY (probably not even your nearest and dearest, not even your own dear mum) gives a sh*t about what you have been searching for." ..... By gribbler Posted Monday 9th November 2009 08:39 GMT


    Whilst I would agree with you about the first sentence worry, I most certainly wouldn't with the NOBODY in second sentence, with it being fully dependent upon what you are searching for or, for much more rewarding fun, are interested in placing online for discovery. Something such as the following email hosted on a page for EVERYBODY to see and an Enlightened Few to Perfectly Understand. .........

    [quote] Perk.collated COFEE .... for ITs Fuller Bodied Flavour/Flash AIRoma

    Hi, John,

    I would just like to point out the following ..... "Microsoft COFEE is being made available to individuals employed by law enforcement agencies within the United States and Canada." ..., which is not the same as ...."The Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor (COFEE) is a piece of software designed for the use of law enforcement agencies, and provided to the same free of charge by Microsoft. And, largely because of its mystique, has been a much sought-after piece of code."

    The latter [Written by enigmax on November 08, 2009 ] suggests that it is a globally available tool whereas the former reveals that it is much more exclusive. And usually exclusive also leads to excessive, for personal and private profit abuse. In fact, it invariably ALWAYS does so, such is the failure in Man.

    And as for mystical, much sought-after pieces of code, .... Holy Grail Searches ...... there can surely be none greater than that which reveals what makes Man tick. Once you have discovered that, will Mankind be your AI Puppet and it and IT can be Remotely and Virtually Programmed to do One's Bidding Sublimely. And much more a case of Chasing AIRed Hot LOVE Dragon than Swishing at a Swashbuckling Private Pirate Love Bug in CyberSpace/Live Operational Virtual Environments ...... where IT notes and advises, Law is irregular and unconventionally enforced in a Flexible Dynamic and Justice is SWIFT and Absolutely Merciful and SMART/Imperfectly Perfect and Ever Mindful and Searching of ITs Flaw and Floor/Ceiling.

    IT is not a Space which Suffers from Earth's Fools and their Present Follies. It is though a Space which Targets and Relentlessly Exploits and Profits Obscenely from them ?.! :-) I Kid U Not.

    Regards, amfM. [/quote]

    * Who cares? They who Dare, is Who, gribbler.

  48. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    40th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down

    While it's unlikely that Google's gimlet eye is going to lead to jackboots kicking your door in at 4AM in the morning, the knowledge that everything you say or do is being recorded can have a chilling effect. (Not that you could tell from looking at Facebook).

    At what point does Google's "oversight" of our online lives become oppressive?

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