New policy raises concerns over user information
Scheduled to go into effect March 1, the policy simplifies 60 product-specific polices under one umbrella policy, which will help Google aggregate collected user information.
Currently, Google collects different types of user information from various places. The policy states: “We may collect device-specific information (such as your hardware model, operating system version, unique device identifiers, and mobile network information including your phone number.) Google may associate your device identifiers or phone number with your Google account.”
This collection involves the use of “cookies,” IP addresses and service logs, all of which serve as unique identifiers consisting of a string of characters. The information is relayed to Google, and usually contains the hardware model, operating system number and the date of visitation.
In addition, Google will combine its once separate databases. While a user remains logged in, Google collects user information from across affiliated sites—including YouTube, Gmail, Blogger and Picasa—and then utilizes that data in order to tailor search results and ad content. In this way, cookies can be further defined and specific to each user, controlling the kinds of results a user could receive from a search. Francine Lam, a senior sociology major, views this change as helpful to users. “I kind of like the idea,” she said.
Google claims its policy principles remain unchanged—it’s still collecting the same information as before. But, this new model allows the company to build a more extensive profile on an individual.
This new policy has generated global backlash. European Union lawmakers have delayed Google to verify whether the new policy violates EU data protection laws. South Korea is conducting a similar investigation, and the policy faces criticism in America. Apple’s Safari web browser forbids third-party cookies, but Google was recently caught disabling Safari’s privacy settings, which allowed Google to install its own cookies. An investigation published by the Wall Street Journal showed that Google had circumvented Safari’s programming code in order to track information. Google later removed its code in response to the Wall Street Journal’s investigation.
On Feb. 8, the Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the Federal Trade Commission over Google, claiming that this policy violates a previous settlement. This agreement had required both Google and Facebook to obtain a user’s explicit consent before altering privacy settings.
Microsoft also launched a campaign of attack ads, one of which depicts a postal worker—the “Gmail Man”—reading through a citizen’s mail. Microsoft runs a similar operation to Google; the company owns the search-engine Bing, which collects data in conjunction with Facebook.
Under the new policy, Google users will have some control over monitoring. For instance, users can disable the search history function, use “incognito mode” within Google’s Chrome browser, or categorize a video chat as “off the record.” Also, a dashboard will allows users to manage information attached to an account, and many services are available without a user being logged in.
Despite these control features, there are those, like Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey, who criticize that users can’t opt out of upcoming changes unless they close their accounts. Markey announced in a Jan. 26 press release that “all consumers should have the right to say no to sharing of their personal information, particularly when young people are involved.”
Chris Shortell, political science professor at Portland State, pointed out that a lack of privacy is not exclusive to the Internet. Credit and supermarket loyalty cards, for instance, track purchases and, in turn, sell that information to marketers. “Time and time again, people in general are perfectly willing to give up private information in exchange for relatively minor benefits,” Shortell said.
Google receives the majority of its revenue from advertisements, and tailoring ads to targeted audiences helps to increase profits. Google shares only non-identifiable information with marketers in order to assess and predict trends. There are rare instances in which Google discloses names or other identifiable markers, which includes valid legal requests.
When asked, most students were aware of the upcoming change but hadn’t thoroughly read the new policy. “I admittedly haven’t read that much about them, but I do know that there’s more to them than meets the eye, and there’s more than user friendliness in mind,” said sophomore Fiona Burgess, an applied linguistics major.
In a social media age, sites such as Google, Twitter and Facebook indicate a growing need for users to be able to control what information is available to others. Google+ does provide a “view profile as” feature, which allows users to view their profile from various perspectives, yet users aren’t able to see their data from a marketer’s viewpoint. “People are unaware of the scope of information that is available to marketers about them,” Shortell said.
Shortell also notes that without public pressure, people can expect “privacy concerns to continue to take a back seat.” The policy’s launch date approaches, and in the face of lawsuits and scrutiny, it is uncertain whether U.S. lawmakers will restrict this internet-mogul.