Big Brother is watching us all … and his name, at least one of his names, is Google. Let me tell you a little story.
Jane Doe wanted a new pair of shoes. She had in mind a pair of Reebok sneakers in white with light blue trim. Jane goes on line and puts a few key words into a search engine, probably Google. A number of options are listed including on-line sites such as Amazon, and also listed are stores near Jane’s home. Wanting to try on the shoes for a good fit, Jane decides against the on-line sites and chooses a store or two near home. On Saturday, Jane picks up her wallet and cell phone and heads to the first store. They do not have the colour she wants, so she goes to the second store, finds exactly what she wants on sale, so she happily pays for the shoes with her handy-dandy credit card.
Meanwhile, back in a room with many computers, data is being crunched and spit out to marketers who pay Google for certain services. The program is called “advanced machine learning and mapping technology”. It picked up Jane’s trail as soon as she Googled “reebok womens white blue”. It noted what colour and size she was seeking, and what recommendations she received. Okay, not too surprising so far. But … when Jane left the house, it began tracking her location via the GPS in her cell phone. When she stopped at the first store, it followed her. And when she went to the second store, it followed her there, too. AND … when Jane paid for the shoes with her credit card, they knew that too. And all of this information is transferred to marketing companies so that they can target and bombard Jane with ads for similar or related products. They now know her shoe size, brand & colour preference, and location.
According to an article by NPR:
“Google is both a search behemoth and an online advertising powerhouse, and it takes advantage of its vast collection of data to create detailed ad metrics. For several years, the company has been using location data on phones to track store visits — for example, to see how many people clicked on a PetSmart ad and then visited their local PetSmart.
But the new system goes further, and looks at actual purchases, by relying on in-store credit card transactions. Google says it doesn’t have access to that data directly. However, the company has “third-party partnerships” that “capture approximately 70% of credit and debit card transactions in the United States,” Google said in May.
That data gets cross-referenced with information Google already has, to connect user accounts to in-person purchases. Aggregated data showing the relationship between Google ads and purchases is then delivered to advertisers.”
Google executives say they are using complex, patent-pending mathematical formulas to protect the privacy of consumers and that the formulas make it impossible for Google to know the identity of the real-world shoppers, and for the retailers to know the identities of Google’s users. Now first off, I do not trust anyone who tells me that something is “impossible”. Anything is possible with the right tools and knowledge. And second, if Russia was able to hack into servers that were considered among the most secure in the nation …. enough said. Google has refused to name its “third-party partners”, what data is acquired or what steps they are taking to de-identify that data, all of which is suspicious in and of itself.
Google tells NPR that users have “robust controls” over their data, and can opt out of purchase tracking by removing permission for Google to use their “Web and App activity.” (To do so, visit “My Activity” in your Google account, select “Activity Controls” and de-select “Web and App activity.”)
I did the above steps, and while I was at it, turned off every tracking permission I found, such as track location data, YouTube history, etc. However, I still do not trust them. We have only their word that if we uncheck the box, they will no longer track us. This is disturbing to me, and I am not alone.
A privacy watchdog group has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is concerned that Google’s methods, the details of which are not public, may not sufficiently safeguard users’ privacy, and they are asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. “Google claims that they don’t know who the users are, that they are being de-identified,” says Marc Rotenberg, the president of EPIC. “We want the FTC to take a closer look.”
I hate to say it, but even if the FTC investigates and finds that all possible measures are being taken to ensure our privacy, and even though I turned off all tracking options for Google, I believe that in the future I will either turn off my cell phone or just leave it at home when I go out. And rather than pay for anything with credit card, I shall use cash. Ten years ago, I might not have been so untrusting, but in today’s world where every day there is another tale of cyber-hacking, and in the era of Trump who has no compunction about giving businesses almost unlimited power over we the consumer, I trust no one.
Big Brother is watching and if he gets close enough, I will poke him in the eye with a stick!
Today, our own government is threatening to make our private voting information public, net neutrality is being threatened, and now this. The Internet is a wonderful thing … or is it???