A bit of a firestorm was sparked by Google changing its privacy policies rather abruptly, while making opt-ing out of the massive amount of data sharing that will take place if their proposed folding 60 of its 70 existing
product privacy policies under one blanket policy and breaking down the
identity barriers between (to accommodate its new Google+
social network software) nearly impossible.
One one hand, this didn't strike me as something they weren't already probably doing...but that doesn't make it okay, either. By the least, Google's ability to create an incredibly detailed digital dossier of every one of us, with little to no control on our part, would be enhanced beyond what it already can do.
Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer wrote in a statement emailed to eWEEK:
In other words, I view ANYTHING Google says or apparently does when it comes to privacy with a huge grain of salt.We are living in a brave new cyber world in which nearly everything we do can be monitored, sold and stored. And, let's remember, we have yet to establish the kinds of privacy protections demanded in this new information age. And that is not by accident, last year Google spent a record $9.7 million on lobbying
Such data-gathering and profiling activities are largely invisible, except that they can result in the real-time display of behaviorally targeted ads. You might ask, “What’s the harm in receiving ads based on my web-surfing history?” In a legislative primer presented to members of Congress by 10 organizations, including ours, several potentially harmful effects of behavioral tracking and targeting were identified: (1) targeting economically distressed individuals with payday loans and subprime mortgages; (2) sending ads for bogus cures to individuals with serious medical conditions; (3) engaging in discriminatory pricing in which some people are offered products or services at higher prices than others; and (4) targeting children who lack the judgment capacity of adults. Further, profiles compiled originally for the ad industry may be sold to non-advertising third parties such as insurance companies.
However, studies show that robust profiles generated from anonymous data can be matched with other data sources, offline and online, to determine individuals’ identities. These days, the anonymity argument is largely a myth. Another myth is that young people are not concerned about privacy. These “digital natives” have not known a world without the Internet, so the argument goes, and they are not worried about their personal information being revealed online. However, a 2009 academic survey found there are no significant differences between young adults and older individuals regarding online privacy concerns. While some believe that in a generation or two, concerns about online privacy will vanish, we at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse are not so quick to accept that argument.
Other members signed on include Cliff Stearns (R), Henry Waxman (D)--plus veteran Google antagonists Joe Barton (R) and Ed Markey (D). Google has until February 16th to respond.
As I have written on this blog in the past: We know for instance, and they have been sued for it, companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other Internet companies track and profile users and then auction off ads targeted at individual consumers in the fractions of a second before a Web page loads.
That in itself, may not be all that threatening to most. But it raises some interesting questions: What kind of control should we have over our own data? And, what kind of tools should be available for us to protect it? What about ownership of our data? Should we be compensated for the billions of dollars being made by corporations from their tracking of us? And of course, what of the government's access to this new world of data storage?
The argument from privacy advocates has largely been that this massive and stealth data collection apparatus threatens user privacy and regulators should compel (not hope that) companies to obtain express consent from consumers before serving up "behavioral" ads based on their online history.