Thursday, June 4, 2009

New Study: Google Is Top Tracker of Web Surfers

What a shock! But seriously, this isn't anything to joke about. This new privacy study conducted by a group of graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, backs up what many of us have been concerned with both regarding Google as well as the ever widening disparity between what kind of control consumers would like over their personal data versus what is actually being done with that data (and how little people know about what's being done).

Similarly, the study also reinforces yet another concern among privacy advocates: Website monitoring practices take advantage of all kinds of loopholes in privacy regulations.

But, in terms of Google's role in all this, let me give you a little backdrop on the company and the growing concerns privacy advocates have regarding its practices and products. Allow me to quote myself (which I very much enjoy):

It's inarguable that Google is rapidly becoming the official technology sponsor of the nation and globe. For the sake of argument, let's just accept this as truth, and assume this company's reach and breadth will only grow. With that in mind, it becomes paramount - and beholden on all those that relish privacy - to keep a close eye on this global leader's attention to this constitutional protection as it relates to their technological innovations.

While it might be an exaggeration to say that Google has been hostile to privacy advocates and their concerns, they've been resistant to say the least. Google has become a concern for advocates for a myriad of reasons, stemming from their lobbying activities to the actual privacy implications of some of their product lines.

And this quote of mine too:

Now to the latest Google policy that has privacy advocates up in arms: the company's targeted (behavioral) advertising plan. As is often the case, the divergence between what corporations want versus what privacy advocates support stems from the clash between an "opt-in" policy versus an "opt-out".

In this case, as with so many others, Google has gone with an "opt-out" policy...and a flawed one at that. The real story here though is that Google has officially gone into the behavioral targeting business, as demonstrated by their acquisition of one of the world's biggest behavioral targeting ad companies, DoubleClick. Extend behavioral targeting through its online ad network -- the world's largest and most dominant."

In yet another post, I also wrote this:

...the Rose Foundation of Oakland, California, due to these growing concerns, rewarded Consumer Watchdog - a California consumer rights group - with significant funding to independently monitor Google's activities in Washington as well as in depth analyses of their products' privacy implications.

For the past six months, Consumer Watchdog has constructively attempted to engage Google on its privacy problems - and the initial signs are not comforting. In fact, the group's "monitoring" has so antagonized Google that Bob Boorstin, the company's Director of Corporate and Policy Communications, recently even urged the Rose Foundation to consider pulling the group's funding. Needless to say, there's quite a backdrop to this story, leading to a blistering response from Consumer Watchdog, including a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and an eventual "apology" from Google.

Some of what Consumer Watchdog has discovered to date include: Google lobbying Congress to weaken privacy protections for medical records stored in its Google Health programs (an issue we at CFC know very well) as well as stepped-up PR efforts targeting analysts, journalists, policymakers and think tanks in order to confront, undermine, and even silence "critics" (particularly of privacy) efforts to bring "sunlight" to Google's lobbying activities and products.

Now to the latest findings on Google from the University of Berkeley as reported in the New York Times:

When asked about online privacy, most people say they want more information about how they are being tracked and more control over how their personal information is used. Those consumer expectations are rarely in line with the data collection practices of Internet companies, which often collect information about their users not only on their own sites, but also when those users visit other sites across the Web. Those are some of the central findings of a new privacy study...


Google showed up as the most conspicuous tracker on third-party sites. Google Analytics, a free product that allows online publishers to gather statistics about visitors to their sites, was used on 81 of the top 100 sites. Cookies from the advertising company DoubleClick, which is owned by Google, were present on 70 of those sites. When combining trackers from those two services, Google had a presence on 92 of the top 100 sites. Others weren’t far behind. Cookies from Atlas, Microsoft’s DoubleClick rival, appeared on 60 sites, and trackers from two other analytics companies, Quantcast and Omniture, showed up on 54 sites.


What is striking in the Berkeley students’ report is that in a sample of nearly 400,000 Web domains, Google’s presence remained high, at 88 percent, while those of other companies declined sharply. The second most frequent tracker in that sample was from an analytics company called StatCounter, which appeared on only 7 percent of domains. Assuming the data is accurate, it is a testimony to the widespread popularity of Google’s services like Analytics, DoubleClick and AdSense, the company’s contextual advertising network, which is used by a large percentage of Web sites small and large.


But Google disputes even that. For instance, it said that the cookies used by its analytics service are different on each Web site, so they do not allow the company to track a user from site to site. “It doesn’t enable any cross-site tracking,” said Mike Yang, managing counsel at Google. Mr. Yang also said Google’s contracts with customers do not allow it to merge data from various services like DoubleClick and AdSense, or to link that data to personal information that Google collects when users sign up for its other services.


Still, the numbers are eye-catching. And as important as the numbers themselves is what the study says about the disconnect between how Americans conceive of privacy, company practices and the government’s approach to regulation of those practices, said Chris Hoofnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology’s information privacy programs, who helped advise the students.

Consumers were complaining to the F.T.C. about a lack of control over personal information,” Mr. Hoofnagle said. “That is very different from how the F.T.C. has framed the issue,” he said, noting that under the Bush administration, the agency frowned on privacy practices only if they caused harm to consumers. Mr. Hoofnagle added: “We have a new F.T.C. now. They may scrap the ‘harm’ approach and look at some other method for balancing rights and responsibilities.”

What can I say, Chris Hoonagle - someone who's expertise on these issues I can personally testify to - said it better there than I ever could.

This now is the challenge: finding that balance between the inherent privacy protections that the Constitution provides with the demands of the public at large to have more control over their personal information with the rights of the business community to create a profitable product with the government's responsibility to implement smart regulations where needed. As you might gather, I feel strongly that balance should put a higher priority on protecting an individuals right to privacy than the the corporations right to profit off it...

Click here to read the rest of the article.

1 comment:

CFC said...

I have to apologize to everyone. Due to issues with my account, for the past year and a half I was not aware of all the comments that were being submitted!! I'm so sorry to everyone. I went back and approved some, but others were so long ago it just didn't make much sense. At any rate, thank you, and I will be aware of comments in the future so comment away...

Thanks, Zack