Privacy Concerns With Google

On Friday I mentioned that privacy advocates are becoming even more concerned with how much information Google knows and will know about us. Two recent events are causing the uproar. First is Google’s proposed acquisition of DoubleClick, which would come with a large amounts of user data the ad company has collected over the years. Second is the slightly more recent expansion of search history to web history within Google’s personalized search. Both will give Google more information about our surfing and searching habits than any company has ever had.

Google, DoubleClick And Two Very Large Databases

Google already possesses a rather large database of search history and as we’ve seen with the AOL debacle it’s none too difficult to tie a lot of those searches to a given person even if personal information isn’t stored along with the details of the search.

DoubleClick has it’s own very large database as the leader in serving digital ads. It’s hard to be online more than a few minutes without picking up at least one cookie from DoubleClick. Google has stated it would like to merge the non-personally identifiable information from both databases. Doesn’t that make you squirm just a little bit.

Don’t Look Now, But Someone Knows What Pages You’re Viewing

Shortly after news of the deal with DoubleClick, Google expanded and renamed search history to web history inside of personalized search. By now, after logging into one of the many properties you have needing a Google account, you’ve no doubt been prompted to try web history in some way shape or form.

Web history as the name implies will track not only your search habits, but also your surfing habits. How comfortable are you with that? It’s a little too big brotherish for many and naturally those many are concerned with all the information Google has or can have about us.

But, Everyone Is Doing It

The backlash prompted two posts in defense of Google, coincidentally both titled Google and Privacy. The first by Tim O’Reilly and the second by Matt Cutts both point out that it’s not just Google that has access to the same amount of information.

Tim points to credit card companies, phone companies, and supermarkets, while Matt points to ISPs. Both are right. There’s a lot of data about us floating around and some of that data is frequently sold to marketers without our knowledge or permission. Both Tim and Matt also point out that when the US government subpoenaed search engines to turn over data, Google was the only engine not to hand over the data. Google is also the only engine that plans on anonymizing search queries, albeit after 18 to 24 months.

Today Michael Gray, who’s been adamant in his dislike of personalized search posted, Google Web History – More Spying From Google. Michael brings up one of those old lessons we all learned as kids. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Sure a lot of companies collect data about us, but that doesn’t make it ok for Google to do the same. He also points out that despite what Google would have us believe the information they are gathering is more for their benefit than it is for ours. Knowing what we search for and what sites we visit will allow Google to serve some very targeted ads no matter what page we happen to be viewing.

I agree with Michael on both counts. Frankly I haven’t seen much benefit with personalized search, though admittedly I hardly every search while logged in and I declined the offer of web history when I was initially prompted. I’m in that not enough information to help me state as far as personalized search is concerned. I do have to wonder though why Google is still recommending to me the same few things that I haven’t clicked on the past couple of months. C’mon if you give me something random I have a greater chance of clicking at this point. I’m long past recommendation blindness.

Despite the lack of assistance I let Google provide me, I still feel confident I’ll be able to find what I want when searching. I’ve been at it a few years now and I’ve gotten pretty good at refining queries. I even enjoy some of the discoveries I make when I don’t quite get the query right. I do believe personalization in search has more to do with the ads we’ll soon be seeing and it’s true that just because Visa might know many of the things I buy doesn’t mean Google should know too.

Can We Really Do Anything About It?

As much as I’d prefer no one was collecting all that information about me I’ve sort of resigned myself to the idea that it’s an unavoidable part of living in the 21st century. The only solution I can see to protecting privacy is for all of these companies to destroy the data they collect as soon as possible. That’s simply not going to happen and it’s easy to understand why.

The marketer in me would like to know what you search for and what sites you visit too. If Google were to ask me if I’d like a copy of their database I’d quickly answer yes. There’s a lot of money to be made in knowing more about you. The end user in me doesn’t want you to know what I buy or what web pages I view, but the marketer in me does want to know what you buy and what are some of your favorite sites. It’s a contradiction I know, but I’d guess I’m not alone in feeling this way.

I don’t, however, think this should be all about Google. Both Yahoo and MSN are looking to buy digital ad companies. They both know what we search for and they both can track us around the web. Microsoft tries to track us right though the operating system as if our search behavior isn’t enough. The tracking just isn’t going to go away any time soon and big brother, uncle Charlie, and your cousin Sue is watching.

But will they always? Andy Hagans proposed an interesting solution of sorts as a way for a search engine like Ask or MSN to take some market share away from Google.

Interesting idea. If we’re all concerned that Google and perhaps Yahoo! just behind are invading our privacy a little more than we’d like then maybe Ask or MSN can brand itself as the privacy engine and get a lot more of us to use their search engines. Couldn’t hurt and it’s not like either company is having us flock to them right now. Maybe if they did and then we started using Ask and MSN more, Google might be forced to go to greater depths to protect our privacy as well or see their monopoly on search start to erode.

What do you think? Are you concerned about your privacy and how much Google or any search engine knows about your behavior online? Do you see a solution or do you just accept that’s how it’s going to be from now on? Maybe your fervently doing research on proxy servers as we speak.

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  1. I read something really interesting a while ago about bird flu, and how we’re looking over a lot of ancient Russian data from the 1970s and ’80s. They can actually tell us a great deal about how diseases spread, because the Soviets carefully tracked and recorded their citizens movements in a way that would be impossible in the free world at the time.

    The info Google has is a dictator’s dream, but Google doesn’t seem interested in policy. And frankly I’m a little more comfortable with them amassing this type of information than with the NSA doing the same and more. At least with Google I understand what they want the data for, and have some idea to what extent they’re collecting it.

  2. That is interesting. I wouldn’t have thought you could track people’s movements like that, but you are talking about the former Soviet Union.

    I agree with you about choosing Google to hold the data over the NSA. I wish no one would hold onto that data, but I think we’re past the point where that’s a possibility. And Google has at least publicly showed it is interested in our privacy. They did fight the government and have at least taken initial steps to anonymize the data they collect.

    I’d like to see them go further than they are, but they are doing more than all the other companies out there. And it’s hard to blame them for wanting to collect that data. There’s a lot of money to made from all the information.

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