Google ad service raises privacy fears

08:05 by Editor · 0 Post a comment on AAWR

Is Google's new targeted advertising service a boon to users, or is it Big Brother in disguise?

Google knows more about you than any organisation in human history. It can give you a bird’s eye view of your house, allow friends and family to track your every move through their mobile phones, and through its search engine - knows your likes, dislikes and even your vices. 

Google’s influence over our lives is set to grow further after it anounced today that it will track millions of people as they move through the internet in order work out what their interests are. Using that information, it will then provide targeted advertising to suit users' individual tastes. 

The move was met with fierce criticism. MPs described the new system as the introduction of “big brother” advertising, and leading privacy campaigners said the development was “dangerous”, calling on the government to launch an investigation into the activities of the company to see whether it was becoming too powerful. 

Google’s new system, which launched today, can track users who visit hundreds of thousands of sites that show Google advertising. By following users through these sites, Google is able to display advertising that is relevant to each individual user.

The company said in a statement: “If you love to travel and frequently visit travel-related websites, you’re more likely to see interest-based ads about vacations and travel deals as you surf the web.” 

“If you visit a website that sells pet supplies, you might see an ad from that particular pet supply website the next time you browse other sites showing interest-based ads from Google.” 

Other companies in the online industry have already embraced behavioural advertising of this sort, but privacy campaigners have consistently fought against tracking for advertising purposes. Google calls the system “interest-based advertising”. 

The way the system works is that Google will use a “cookie” - a small piece of data inside a web browser - to track people as they visit one of the sites that display Google advertising. Google will then assign those users to categories based on the content of the pages they visit. For example, someone may be pigeon-holed as a football fan, a car owner or soon-to-be parent, based on the information gathered by Google. 

Google said it would not categorise certain “sensitive” interests which including race, religion, sexual orientation and personal medical information. However, privacy campaigners lambasted the system. “Google might well hype their targeting system as a boon to pet owners, but the reality is that the service will track just about everything you do and everything you’re interested in, no matter how personal or sensitive,” said Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International. 

He added: “The privacy threat from Google is growing by the day. It is now time for parliament to launch a full investigation of the company.” 

In response, a Google spokesperson said: "This is completely untrue. We will not serve ads against sensitive categories full stop, and users can easily opt out of receiving any interest-based adverts entirely." 

The information commissioner’s office said they had been consulted on Google’s plans and were pleased that Google had given users a high level of control over how their information is used. 

But some were less convinced by the security of the system. “‘Big brother’ advertising will soon be hitting our computer screens thanks to Google,” said Tom Brake MP, the Liberal Democrats’ Home Affairs Spokesman. 

“There must also be clear rules about how long the data is kept for, who it can be accessed by and whom it can be sold on to.” 

Behavioural advertising has already been the source of fierce controversy. 

Phorm, a UK-based company that aims to show advertisements based on users’ internet history, has been investigated by the police and the government over privacy concerns. Phorm has attracted interest from UK Internet Service Providers including BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk, although no company has yet introduced the system.  continues here

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