Big Brother Google is Watching You

Big Brother’s Watching You

Targeting advertising to your audience is something that every advertiser or ad server works extremely hard to do. It’s expensive to create and put up ads, so why not make sure that they’re as relevant as possible for their viewers, right? This might make perfect sense on paper, but this philosophy is starting to lead ad providers like Google into some dangerous territory.

Big Brother’s Watching You: Are Search Engines Invading Your Privacy?

You might think that seeing only advertising that you’re actually interested in doesn’t sound all bad, but the way that Google obtains the information they use for targeting their ads has a lot of web users up in arms. It might make more sense to place ads, such as the best women’s golf clubs, that are relevant to that site’s content, but Google doesn’t see it that way… instead, they sniff out your web browsing habits, and use those to show you the ads that they think you’ll want, regardless of what site you’re actually on.

So, what gives? How is Google able to invade your privacy to begin with, and what can you do to protect yourself?

Google and Your Inbox

One of the things that Google does that has privacy experts up in arms is email scanning. The sensible solution might seem to be to simply not use Google’s email service, but that won’t save you- not only is Google capable of scanning the emails of its Gmail users, it scans the emails that their non-Google-using friends send them, too. Emails are scanned for certain keywords, and advertising is placed depending on those keywords. Send an email to your mother about the wonderful juice fountain you just purchased, and chances are your sidebars will be clogged with ads for juice machines.

If you ask Google why they do this, they’ll tell you it’s only to glean information that they can use to integrate their products better, that they don’t store the data beyond a sixty day period, and that they don’t cross reference their information with cookies.

There’s only one problem with this- there’s nothing stopping them from doing any of those things. Google may say that they don’t store or cross reference data, but there’s no reason why they can’t. Do you want to trust the word of a company that’s going through your private emails?

Google Knows Your Friends, Too

privacy google knows

Do you remember “Google Buzz?” Google Buzz was a Gmail-integrated social networking service that was supposed to be the next big thing. The trouble was, Google automatically made Google Buzz users’ email contacts visible to the entire internet, by adding them as Google Buzz friends and making them visible to all of your other Google Buzz friends. Google tried to cover their tracks by claiming that users could adjust their privacy settings, but it turned out to be too little, too late. By the time most Google Buzz users knew to make their contacts private, thousands upon thousands of them had already been made visible. The backlash against it was so severe; it prompted Google to shut the service down entirely.

The dismal failure of Google Buzz didn’t spell the end of Google’s social networking involvement, though.

Now, Google has “Google Plus”, a service designed to compete with the likes of Facebook.

One of the features of Google Plus is that it’s fully integrated with Gmail, so Google Plus users may find that they sign up for the service, and all of their email contacts are there, just waiting to be added as friends.

This might seem easy and convenient, but there’s one problem- not all of those email contacts are really Google Plus users. Instead, all Google Plus does is pull the names of the people you chat or email with, and suggest them to you as Google Plus friends. If you go to add people who aren’t signed up for Google Plus, they are sent spam asking them to sign up for the service.

Google’s Terms of Use claim that they record information about your “activity” in order to help improve the way that their products and services work. Some companies would pay top dollar to know what Gmail and Google Plus users are doing. What is Google doing to protect their users’ privacy? If the Google Buzz disaster and early stages of Google Plus are any indication, the answer is “Not much.”

Cookies Sell Your Attention

Cookies” is a term you come across pretty frequently on the internet. They’re useful little widgets that store things like the usernames and passwords you use on your favorite websites, so you don’t have to re-enter them with every visit.

Deleting cookies means having to go through the hassle of not having this information stored for you, so many people are hesitant to get rid of them entirely. Besides, they expire after a set period of time anyway, so what’s the harm? If you’ve ever gotten a box that’s asked you if you want to save your username and password for a site you’ve visited, you’ve been given the chance to have a cookie saved on your computer.

Cookies are usually not harmful, and are created to help you, not hurt you. The trouble is, there’s one major problem with this- if all cookies stored was simple login data that would be one thing. Unfortunately, some cookies, called “tracking cookies”, store a lot more than that, and never, ever expire.

Some websites have exploited the fact that most cookies are harmless and created things capable of monitoring and recording your web browsing habits over months, or even years. Some of these cookies compile their data into a whole advertising profile that tells companies about the kind of sites you visit, which allows them to target their ads based on the things you do online.

These profiles are worth a lot of money to the right people.

Second Verse, Same as the First

One thing that all of the backlash against Google’s privacy invasion has in common is the company’s response. Every time anyone has gotten up in arms about Google’s actions, they are essentially told that their invaded privacy is their own fault. After all, it isn’t Google’s problem that Google Buzz users didn’t adjust their privacy settings, right? Google also says that they track what you do right in their Terms of Use for services like Google Plus.

While Google could technically make the argument that they haven’t done anything legally wrong, the fact that users were never explicitly warned about these privacy issues makes Google’s excuses look shaky, at best. Nowhere is this more evident than in their actions with Google Maps.

Google Maps is a useful service used by people the world over for navigation and research. The thing is, the information for Google’s “Street View” feature was obtained by unmarked vans that drove around and took pictures. This happened regardless of what was going on at the time. As a result, there were pictures of whatever people happened to be doing outdoors while Google’s vans were driving by… Sunbathing topless, breaking the law, picking your nose, it didn’t matter. It could be preserved for posterity by some stranger in an unmarked van.

When people flipped out about this fact, did Google stop their creepy stalker vans? Of course not. Legally, it was ruled that taking the photographs was an invasion of privacy, but not actually against the law. So, Google simply told their violated users that they always had the option to report content that they felt was objectionable, and went right on snapping photos. So, users have to flag the photos they didn’t like, then sit back and wait until if and when Google felt like deleting it. In the meantime, the photos stay up, and the rest of the world gets to see them.

Keep Big Brother from Watching You

google cookies watching privacy

Short of staying off of the internet and never leaving your house when there’s an unmarked van in the neighborhood, the easiest way to get Google off of your back is to avoid using their services. Unfortunately, as has been mentioned above, this is hardly foolproof. No matter where you go on the internet, or what you do, you leave behind electronic traces that companies like Google can use to track you whether you’re subscribed to them or not.

Accessing websites through a proxy can help put another wall between you and the prying eyes of Google. Many websites don’t allow the use of proxies, but it can help keep your visits anonymous to those that do.

Vigilantly clearing your browser history and deleting cookies can help protect you, too. You can manually delete them under “Settings” in your browser, or instruct your browser to never save them to begin with.

What do you do to help protect your online privacy?

Image © Ariwasabi , NatUlrich, Anton Prado Fotolia.com

As a senior Pat Tate, knowing virtually nothing about computers and the Internet started to investigate Internet Marketing. She uses her blog as a journal of this journey into a new world and to keep track of the people and programs that she has met along the way. Grandma's Internet Marketing blog. She is an avid golfer and invites women to join her to talk golf at Women's Golf Center. She has always loved toys and as the proud Grandmother of five beautiful Grandchildren she gets to play with new ones. Grandma's Toy Review


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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Paul Salmon February 15, 2012, 10:01 am

    Unfortunately, most online and technology companies probably store some information on you, whether you know about it or not. It is the world we live in. With social media being use by probably over 1 billion people, it is impossible for personal information to not be stored somewhere online. It is the nature of the beast in reality.

    Google isn’t alone in this regard, as we have seen Facebook been brought up in the news about personal information and security.

    In the end, however, it will come down to how much we decide to provide to online companies that dictate what information we provide. Let’s face it, using Google/Facebook is a choice.

    • Pat Tate February 15, 2012, 9:56 pm

      I think you are right that it is hard to avoid personal information being gather. I think that it might be easier to escape Facebook’s gathering than Google’s but I am not sure. It does shake one to think that our emails are being scanned for our interests and preferences.

  • Dennis February 10, 2012, 11:47 am

    Thats why I like MacBooks. I can create a guest account for anyone to login. The minute they logout, it deletes everything they did.. Everyone is safe like that.

  • Hung Hong February 9, 2012, 5:09 am

    Even that, i cannot refuse to use some of their services like Gmail

  • Pat Tate February 6, 2012, 10:11 pm

    Thank you all for weighing in on this subject. I had no idea that one should be so wary of Google Chrome although as I work mostly on a Mac I seldom use it.
    A friend of mine when he read this post sent me this link It is a short item written by Dylan Love July 14, 2011 in which he states:
    “In order to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, Google+ requires its users to be at least 13 years old. Last week, a 10-year old Gmail user in the Netherlands signed up for a Google+ account, and Al Jazeera reports that that’s when trouble started.
    The boy, Alex, was kicked off of all Google services for his terms of service violation. Furthermore, his father writes in a blog post that Google informed him that his account will be deleted in 29 days unless he can provide some proof of age (he can’t).”

    This truly does smack of “Big Brother” watch you.

  • abhiz February 6, 2012, 8:10 am

    Thanks for this excellent article, i like that big brother concept.

  • Mark Wardell February 6, 2012, 4:55 am

    If we choose to use the World Wide Web then we can’t help but leave digital footprints everywhere we go, its engrained in the technology that we use everyday. Not sure how Google can address the balance of privacy with that of just wanting to make a living but the more we accept it the easier it is for them to keep pushing the boundaries.

  • kristeen February 6, 2012, 3:30 am

    Google, Facebook and all the other large companies in the world have more information about us than we know. Altough they say they do not save this information, its proven many times they still do. Just be carefull there, in the open.

  • Sheryl February 5, 2012, 5:32 pm

    Great article Pat!
    I understand that many people worry about tracking cookies to the point that some people I know will not allow any cookies and then wonder why they can’t get on certain sites.

    I sure do not get that freaked about it, but I never save passwords and I delete my history and cookies so many times a day your head would spin.

    I agree with William (above) that Facebook is a bigger worry than Google.

    Now we have Lamar Smith with his HR 1981 bill that would force Internet Providers to keep all info about users including your name, address, phone number, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and temporarily-assigned IP addresses numbers. Now that is Big Brother at his finest. NOTE- Lamar Smith is the same guy that started the SOPA bill.

    So websites can track you and now the US Government wants access to all you do online. Maybe we should all stop laughing at the guys in tin foil hats?

  • Brian Hawkins February 5, 2012, 11:09 am

    I didn’t get too excited about online privacy issues until I emailed a photographer friend a quick link from my cell phone to an online store to buy a green screen. Just a simple one line and a quick link right from my phone. Then I go home and log into Gmail on my desktop and I see Green Screen ads for days in my Gmail dashboard. I have no problem with serving relevant ads but scanning/reading emails is going too far.

    Deleting cookies all of the time is not a great solution unless there was a quick and easy way to delete only a select few. There’s an app idea for a programmer.

  • William February 5, 2012, 10:57 am

    Nice to read something different than SEO tactics or affiliate marketing tips for a change. And about important matter too. Not that people aren’t aware of these things (well, bloggers are, would imagine), but it’s always good to remind us. I mean, these things get easily forgotten as you dive into WWW. For me too, of course. About Google: I’m somewhat okay with them targeting advertizing based on your search queries and all that, but the email scanning is definitely worrying. Of course, they’re algorithms scanning them, but still; just doesn’t seem right.

    However, the thing that worries me the most is not Google but FB: They’re saying that they have no interest in tracking people (“Facebook does not track users across the web,” – A Facebook spokesperson on September 25, 2011) but surprise, surprise, “A method is described for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain.” – Facebook Patent application dated September 22, 2011. (Not my own investigative work but Michael Arringston’s). That’s. Not. Cool.

  • Abhi Balani February 5, 2012, 5:31 am

    Buckets of information in this post.
    I have read to use a different browser for your personal work and surfing and different one for business work and especially a separate browser for Facebook. Just because of the cookies.

  • Dennis February 5, 2012, 12:34 am

    I have been seeing a lot on clearing out cookies since this recent Google changing their policy. When I found out Google Chrome was basically a tracking device for your online activity, i immediately deleted it from everything I own. I also recently deleted my personal Facebook account. These days, our privacy is in danger and mostly because we allow it.

    Sucks that I have an android phone though. that’s powered by Google.

    I delete my cookies before I go to sleep now. Wake up in the morning with a fresh start.

    • Abhi Balani February 5, 2012, 5:35 am

      Hey Dennis,

      I really loved your last comments on my article. I was laughing hard and blushing as well. LOL

      But I got a good idea by your last line. To remove cookies before going to sleep. I don’t like removing cookies because I don’t want to log-out from all my accounts. It’s tough to log-in in all again in the morning.

      • Dennis February 9, 2012, 4:59 pm

        yea it can be tough.. I’m a sucker for the autosave my password feature on my laptop… I have a lot set to that.. Im the only one with access to my computer physically so I think I’ll be ok..

        • Abhi Balani February 10, 2012, 2:04 am

          Same for me. Only I’m the one with access to my laptop so all passwords are saved. But I need to take care if someone ask me for my laptop or I just give them another user account or browser.

          • Pat Tate February 10, 2012, 12:07 pm

            It seems like it is more than just our passwords that are at risk. It appears that our likes and dislikes are being monitored. It would be more than interesting to know exactly what Google plans to do with all the information that it is gathering about all of us.

            • Abhi Balani February 11, 2012, 12:05 am

              That’s right, Pat.
              In Google’s privacy policy it’s stated in Log information – When you access Google services via a browser, application or other client our servers automatically record certain information. These server logs may include information such as your web request, your interaction with a service, Internet Protocol address, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request and one or more cookies that may uniquely identify your browser or your account.

              May be, our OS and software as well.

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