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May 19, 2011

Google sidetracks on privacy

by Brian Turner

Google tried to calm down rising concerns about privacy issues at its Big Tent privacy conference yesterday.

However, despite presentations by Alma Whitten, Google’s director of “privacy product and engineering” and Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, the company made it clear it will fight to retain as much data as possible.

While the issue of providing an option for current users to control their data was covered to some degree, Google still seems driven on retaining as much user data as possible.

Alma Whitten even dared to claim that the data Google collects from search cannot be used to identify anyone, even before it’s anomymised.

However, AOL proved this belief to be completely false when it released search data back in 2006.

The data was supposed to be anonymous, but even still, a number of individuals were tracked down by journalists simply by putting their search queries together.

While Google is obviously not putting its data out there for use by other companies, it has expanded the means by which it can collect user data.

In fact, every Google product aims to collect and collate together user data in order to serve one goal: serve better targeted ads at them.

Because while most people would like to think of Google as a technology company, it is actually an advertising behemoth, with a vested commercial interest in trying to develop the advertising market further.

So far general internet users have either not been aware or not cared about what is collected about them online.

Which is surprising because of the degree of personal information collected is astonishing, and far more personalised than CCTV cameras on street corners could ever begin to collect.

The fact that the collection remains hidden probably makes it less of an obvious issue, and it’s not just Google that collects this, but a whole range of companies in different areas, from ISPs, marketing companies, and of course advertising providers.

The difference is, with being an engineering driven company, Google is believed to be able to match more of the data together, and more effectively, than any other company.

While it remains in Google’s interest to develop better advertising products, the longer it drags its feet over privacy controls, the more likely it will be forced into compulsory arrangements which work against their interests.

Some engineers within Google might think that putting user data together makes for a better user experience, and a more cost efficient advertising product for its paying customers.

However, as the current showing of interest-based ads show, Google is way off the mark here.

Buy a PC from Dell, and watch as for the next few weeks Google displays Dell adverts at you. You already bought, so the ads are not simply wasted, they become an annoyance.

And it’s issues such as this Google should be mindful of.

Google was already a very successful advertising agency before personalisation. It doesn’t need to hold mountains of data on individual users just to display a different type of ad to them.

After all, general advertising has worked well for the company before now. Voluntary pushing for user data controls now should be an option the company exercises now.

Because if it doesn’t, Google will no doubt find regulators will force the issue on them with less sympathetic terms until it does.

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  1. “Google tried to calm down rising concerns about privacy issues at it Big Tent privacy conference yesterday.”

    Spell checker required!!

    Comment by James Davidson — May 19, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

  2. “even before it’s anomymised.” -> Annonymised

    “You already bought” -> You already bought one / You already bought it

    “should be mindful off. ” -> mindful off

    “Voluntary pushing for user data controls now ” -> Remove the now

    plus people have been well aware of the info google colelcts for awhile now, certainly since the provision of Chrome, thats why there’s websites and addons to disable half the tracking!

    But Google doesn’t neccesarily need to collect data directly to provide adverts targeted at you, it’s “ad word” system is pretty effective at that, picking up key words in emails you open in gmail and displaying associated advertisments. They provide an abundance of services such as Youtube and Mail, earth amongst others so it’s hardly suprising that they pay for themselves via advertising.

    Now, if we were to comment on Apple’s data collection policies, particularly its iphone..

    Comment by Tracker T — May 19, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

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