Google Dropped Its Ban On Personally Identifiable Web Tracking
Good news for people who hate online privacy: Google quietly lifted its ban on personally identifiable web tracking.
When Google first began tracking users’ web history as a way to target ads via the DoubleClick network back in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin insisted his company would never tie the data gathered to any personally identifiable information. Experts say it hasn’t, and I believe them, because fuck if I know how to tell if they’re doing that.
But over the summer, Google began tying users’ personal information with data gleaned from their online activity — including, oh no, what they write in their Gmail accounts — for the first time, asking existing users to opt into a new version of the company’s privacy agreement. (New Google users are opted into the new policy by default.) The language is as follows:
If that sounds like all the super personal shit you say in Gchat, the porn you jerk off to, and the serial killer documentaries you watch out of purely academic interest will now be stored in a database tied to your name and info, that’s because they will be!
The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on the keywords they used in their Gmail. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.
“The fact that DoubleClick data wasn’t being regularly connected to personally identifiable information was a really significant last stand,” said Paul Ohm, faculty director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law.“It was a border wall between being watched everywhere and maintaining a tiny semblance of privacy,” he said. “That wall has just fallen.”
In a statement to ProPublica, Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville contended that the increased surveillance will only be used to target ads better on your various devices, and anyway, it’s easy to opt out:
Our advertising system was designed before the smartphone revolution. It offered user controls and determined ads’ relevance, but only on a per-device basis. This past June we updated our ads system, and the associated user controls, to match the way people use Google today: across many different devices. Before we launched this update, we tested it around the world with the goal of understanding how to provide users with clear choice and transparency. As a result, it is 100% optional–if users do not opt-in to these changes, their Google experience will remain unchanged. Equally important: we provided prominent user notifications about this change in easy-to understand language as well as simple tools that let users control or delete their data. Users can access all of their account controls by visiting My Account and we’re pleased that more than a billion have done so in its first year alone.
Right, because people always pay such close attention to what they’re agreeing to when a little box pops up and interrupts their cat video binge.
Even if you have faith that they’re only using this information to annoy you with the same ads across multiple devices, do you really trust Google to keep a lid on it? The company has already handed over quite a lot of goodies to the government, not to mention the havoc that could be wreaked by hackers. Can you even imagine the national gridlock that would ensue if Vladimir Putin posted everyone’s bitchiest Gchats? America would simply die.
Luckily, concerned parties can opt out — for now — using these instructions from ProPublica:
To opt-out of Google’s identified tracking, visit the Activity controls on Google’s My Account page, and uncheck the box next to “Include Chrome browsing history and activity from websites and apps that use Google services.” You can also delete past activity from your account.
Just because it’s an uphill battle doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to resist molestation by Google’s grabby, ever-encroaching tentacles.