My colleague Mike Rosenwald recently conducted an online experiment that he called “Operation Track Me More.” His goal? To give Google, Yahoo and their advertisers more information about himself so he could be shown ads for things he might actually find useful.
It’s an interesting notion, particularly at a time when many lawmakers and advocacy groups are pushing for just the opposite: Greater protection of our privacy online.
In his story, Rosenwald explains the dueling views on what’s appropriate when it comes to tracking our behavior on the Web.
“Privacy advocates say the little cookies that advertisers slip onto our computers to analyze our browsing habits are creepy, invasive and potential ammunition for insurers or employers.
Advertisers say that those claims are unfounded and naïve and that ad networks are anonymously tracking our behavior so they can improve our lives by offering products we need or want, rather than, say, bikini trimmers aimed at men.”
Rosenwald’s story prompted me to conduct an experiment of my own. Based on the sites I visit on my work computer and the sites I visit on my home laptop, does Google think I am two different people?
The answer, it turns out, is yes. Google has inferred from the cookies on my work computer that I am a male over the age of 65. (For the record, I’m a woman and I’m 26.) Among the topics it thinks I am interested in are financial markets, fiscal policy, newspapers and internet service providers. As a member of the Post’s business and economics news staff, I spend much of my work day reading stories on those topics on our own Web site as well as on the sites of our competitors. So I can see how it arrived at that demography and those interests, based on my activities at the office.
But I suspected my home computer would show much different results, since when I’m off the clock I’ve got a penchant for fluffier activities like online shopping and catching up on celebrity gossip. Indeed, Google determined this time that I was a woman, and was fairly accurate in figuring out my guilty pleasures. Pop music, fashion and style, and yoga were all on my list of results. Inexplicably, though, it also suggested I was interested in “surf & swim.” Unless you count sunbathing by the pool as a water sport, those are not hobbies of mine. Maybe it was my recent search for a new bathing suit that gave that impression.
Want to see who Google thinks you are? Opening this link in the browser you use most often will show you. Tell us about it in the comments or on Twitter using the hashtag #GoogleThinksIm.
And read Rosenwald’s story about Web tracking and its implications.
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Tweet Does Google think you're a 65-year-old man or a teenage girl? Find out what they know about you, then tell us on Twitter using #GoogleThinksIm. We'll post some responses right here.