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
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.
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
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
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?
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