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8.8 Profiling and Privacy

Learning Objectives

After studying this section you should be able to do the following:

  1. Understand the privacy concerns that arise as a result of using tracking cookies to build user profiles.
  2. Be aware of the negative consequences that could result from the misuse of tracking cookies.
  3. Know the steps Google has taken to demonstrate its sensitivity to privacy issues.
  4. Know the kinds of user information that Google stores, and the steps Google takes to protect the privacy of that information.

Until 2009, Google hadn’t used tracking cookies on its AdSense network. While AdSense has been wildly successful, contextual advertising has its limits. For example, what kind of useful targeting can firms really do based on the text of a news item on North Korean nuclear testing?R. Singel, “Online Behavioral Targeting Targeted by Feds, Critics,” Wired News, June 3, 2009. So in March 2009, the firm announced what it calls “interest-based ads.” Google AdSense would now issue a third-party cookie and would track browsing activity across AdSense partner sites, and Google-owned YouTube. AdSense would build a profile, initially identifying users within thirty broad categories and six hundred subcategories. Says one Google project manager, “We’re looking to make ads even more interesting.”R. Hof, “Behavioral Targeting: Google Pulls Out the Stops,” BusinessWeek, March 11, 2009.

Figure 8.16 Categories for Google’s Interest-Based Advertising

Of course, there’s a financial incentive to do this too. Ads deemed more interesting should garner more clicks, meaning more potential customer leads for advertisers, more revenue for Web sites that run AdSense, and more money for Google.

But while targeting can benefit Web surfers, users will resist if they feel that they are being mistreated, exploited, or put at risk. Negative backlash might also result in a change in legislation. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has already called for more transparency and user control in online advertising and for requesting user consent (opt-inProgram (typically a marketing effort) that requires customer consent. This program is contrasted with opt-out programs, which enroll all customers by default.) when collecting sensitive data.R. Singel, “Online Behavioral Targeting Targeted by Feds, Critics,” Wired News, June 3, 2009. Mishandled user privacy could curtail targeting opportunities, limiting growth across the online advertising field. And with less ad support, many of the Internet’s free services could suffer.

Google’s roll-out of interest-based ads shows the firm’s sensitivity to these issues. First, while major rivals have all linked query history to ad targeting, Google steadfastly refuses to do this. Other sites often link registration data (including user-submitted demographics such as gender and age) with tracking cookies, but Google avoids this practice as well.

Figure 8.17 Here’s an example of one user’s interests, as tracked by Google’s “Interest-based Ads” and displayed in the firm’s “Ad Preferences Manager.”

Google has also placed significant control in the hands of users, with options at program launch that were notably more robust than those of its competitors.Hansell, 2009. Each interest-based ad is accompanied by an “Ads by Google” link that will bring users to a page describing Google advertising and which provides access to the company’s “Ads Preferences Manager.” This tool allows surfers to see any of the hundreds of potential categorizations that Google has assigned to that browser’s tracking cookie. Users can remove categorizations, and even add interests if they want to improve ad targeting. Some topics are too sensitive to track, and the technology avoids profiling race, religion, sexual orientation, health, political or trade union affiliation, and certain financial categories.R. Mitchell, “What Google Knows about You,” Computerworld, May 11, 2009.

Google also allows users to install a cookie that opts them out of interest-based tracking. And since browser cookies can expire or be deleted, the firm has gone a step further, offering a browser plug-inA small computer program that extends the feature set or capabilities of another application. that will remain permanent, even if a user’s opt-outPrograms that enroll all customer by default, but that allow consumers to discontinue participation if they want to. cookie is purged.

Google, Privacy Advocates, and the Law

Google’s moves are meant to demonstrate transparency in its ad targeting technology, and the firm’s policies may help raise the collective privacy bar for the industry. While privacy advocates have praised Google’s efforts to put more control in the hands of users, many continue to voice concern over what they see as the increasing amount of information that the firm houses.M. Helft, “BITS; Google Lets Users See a Bit of Selves” New York Times, November 9, 2009. For an avid user, Google could conceivably be holding e-mail (Gmail), photos (Picasa), a Web surfing profile (AdSense and DoubleClick), medical records (Google Health), location (Google Latitude), appointments (Google Calendar), transcripts of phone messages (Google Voice), work files (Google Docs), and more.

Google insists that reports portraying it as a data-hording Big Brother are inaccurate. The firm is adamant that user data exists in silos that aren’t federated in any way, nor are employees permitted access to multiple data archives without extensive clearance and monitoring. Data is not sold to third parties. Activities in Gmail, Docs, or most other services isn’t added to targeting profiles. And any targeting is fully disclosed, with users empowered to opt-out at all levels.R. Mitchell, “What Google Knows about You,” Computerworld, May 11, 2009. But critics counter that corporate intensions and data use policies (articulated in a Web site’s Terms of Service) can change over time, and that a firm’s good behavior today is no guarantee of good behavior in the future.R. Mitchell, “What Google Knows about You,” Computerworld, May 11, 2009.

Google does enjoy a lot of user goodwill, and it is widely recognized for its unofficial motto “Don’t Be Evil.” However, some worry that even though Google might not be evil, it could still make a mistake, and that despite its best intensions, a security breach or employee error could leave data dangerously or embarrassingly exposed.

When AOL released search history on over six hundred and fifty thousand of its Web searchers, these log files included queries such as “How to tell your family you’re a victim of incest,” “Surgical help for depression,” “Can you adopt after a suicide attempt,” “Gynecology oncologists in New York City,” “How long will the swelling last after my tummy tuck,” and perhaps most damning, queries that included specific names, addresses, and phone numbers. While AOL offered the data in a way that disguised individual user accounts, in many cases aggregate query detail contained terms so specific, they provided a strong indication of who conducted the searches.D. Kawamoto and E. Mills, “AOL Apologizes for Release of User Search Data,” CNET, August 7, 2006.

While Google has never experienced a blunder of that magnitude, it has suffered minor incidents, including a March 2009 gaffe in which the firm inadvertently shared some Google Docs with contacts who were never granted access to them.J. Kincaid, “Google Privacy Blunder Shares Your Docs without Permission,” TechCrunch, March 7, 2009.

Privacy advocates also worry that the amount of data stored by Google serves as one-stop shopping for litigators and government investigators. The counter argument points to the fact that Google has continually reflected an aggressive defense of data privacy in court cases. When Viacom sued Google over copyright violations in YouTube, the search giant successfully fought the original subpoena, which had requested user-identifying information.R. Mitchell, “What Google Knows about You,” Computerworld, May 11, 2009. And Google was the only one of the four largest search engines to resist a 2006 Justice Department subpoena for search queries.A. Broache, “Judge: Google Must Give Feds Limited Access to Records,” CNET, March 17, 2006.

Google is increasingly finding itself in precedent-setting cases where the law is vague. Google’s Street View, for example, has been the target of legal action in the United States, Canada, Japan, Greece, and the United Kingdom. Varying legal environments create a challenge to the global rollout of any data-driven initiative.L. Sumagaysay, “Not Everyone Likes the (Google Street) View,” Good Morning Silicon Valley, May 20, 2009.

Ad targeting brings to a head issues of opportunity, privacy, security, risk, and legislation. Google is now taking a more active public relations and lobbying role to prevent misperceptions and to be sure its positions are understood. While the field continues to evolve, Google’s experience will lay the groundwork for the future of personalized technology and provide a case study for other firms that need to strike the right balance between utility and privacy. Despite differences, it seems clear to Google, its advocates, and its detractors that with great power comes great responsibility.

Key Takeaways

  • Possible consequences resulting from the misuse of cookies include user resistance and legislation. Mishandled user privacy could curtail targeting opportunities and limit growth in online advertising. With less ad support, many of the Internet’s free services could suffer.
  • Google has taken several steps to protect user privacy and has thus far refused to link query history or registration data to ad targeting.
  • Google’s “Ads Preferences Manager” allows surfers to see, remove, and add to, any of the categorizations that Google has assigned to that browser’s tracking cookie. The technology also avoids targeting certain sensitive topics.
  • Google allows users to install a cookie or plug-in that opts them out of interest-based tracking.
  • Some privacy advocates have voiced concern over what they see as the increasing amount of information that Google houses.
  • Even the best-intentioned and most competent firms can have a security breach that compromises stored information.

Questions and Exercises

  1. Gmail uses contextual advertising. The service will scan the contents of e-mail messages and display ads off to the side. Test the “creep out” factor in Gmail—create an account (if you don’t already have one), and send messages to yourself with controversial terms in them. Which ones showed ads? Which ones didn’t?
  2. Google adamantly about not building user profiles based on Gmail messages. Ads are served based on a real-time scanning of keywords. Is this enough to make you comfortable with Google’s protection of your own privacy? Why or why not?
  3. List the negative consequences that could result from the misuse of tracking cookies.
  4. What steps has Google taken to give users control over the ads they wish to see?
  5. Which topics does “Ads Preferences Manager” not target?
  6. Visit Google’s Ad Preferences page. Is Google tracking your interests? Do you think the list of interests is accurate? Browse the categories under the “Ad Interest” button. Would you add any of these categories to your profile? Why or why not? What do you gain or lose by taking advantage of Google’s “Opt Out” option? Visit rival ad networks. Do you have a similar degree of control? More or less?
  7. List the types of information that Google might store for an individual. Do you feel that Google is a fair and reliable steward for this information? Are there Google services or other online efforts that you won’t use due to privacy concerns? Why?
  8. What steps does Google take to protect the privacy of user information?
  9. Google’s “interest-based advertising” was launched as an opt-out effort. What are the pros and cons for Google, users, advertisers, and AdSense partner sites if Google were to switch to an opt-in system? How would these various constituencies be impacted if the government mandated that users explicitly opt in to third-party cookies and other behavior-tracking techniques?
  10. What is Google’s unofficial motto?
  11. What is “Street View”? Where and on what grounds is it being challenged?
  12. Cite two court cases where Google has mounted a vigorous defense of data privacy.
  13. Wired News quoted a representative of privacy watchdog group, The Center for Digital Democracy, who offered a criticism of online advertising. The representative suggested that online firms were trying to learn “everything about individuals and manipulate their weaknesses” and that the federal government should “investigate the role [that online ads] played in convincing people to take out mortgages they should not have.”R. Singel, “Online Behavioral Targeting Targeted by Feds, Critics,” Wired News, June 3, 2009. Do you think online advertising played a significant role in the mortgage crisis? What role do advertisers, ad networks, and content providers have in online advertising oversight? Should this responsibility be any different from oversight in traditional media (television, print, radio)? What guidelines would you suggest?