New privacy policy lets Google watch you — everywhere

Michelle Singletary
Columnist March 3, 2012

Several weeks ago, I bought some exercise videos online. Then I noticed that whenever I did an Internet search about anything, an ad for that same video package and other similar workout videos kept popping up. It was spooky.

The whole thing reminded me of two scenes from the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report.” In one, as Cruise is walking through a mall, various holographic ads pop up. There’s a commercial for Lexus, and, as Cruise strolls along, a voiceover says: “The road you’re on, John Anderton, is the one less traveled.” Another says: “John Anderton! You could use a Guinness right about now.” It’s creepy.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

In another scene, Cruise, who has gotten a new pair of eyes to avoid detection by the authorities, walks into a Gap store. His eyes are scanned, and a projected salesperson on a large screen refers to an earlier purchase by a “Mr. Yakamoto,” the previous owner of Cruise’s new eyes.

That scene was even creepier. Now Google has done something just as creepy: The company has a new privacy policy allowing it to track users’ activities by consolidating information it gathers on them as they use the company’s various Web sites. And users can’t opt out.

“Our privacy policies have always allowed us to combine information from different products with your account — effectively using your data to provide you with a better service,” Alma Whitten, Google’s director of privacy for products and engineering, said in a blog posting. “However, we’ve been restricted in our ability to combine your YouTube and search histories with other information in your account. Our new privacy policy gets rid of those inconsistencies so we can make more of your information available to you when using Google.”

Google says the policy changes have more to do with enhancing the services it provides than they do in advertising products and services. In fact, the company says it does not sell, trade or rent personally identifiable user information.

But do you see the word play here? Companies place ads that are matched to your online behavior. Your specific information may be anonymous, but it becomes a better commodity under Google’s new policy.

“Google is proof of the tremendous economic value of individuals’ personal information,” said Evan Hendricks, editor and publisher of Privacy Times. “Because Google can collect data on individuals’ specific interests through their Google searches, Gmail, YouTube, it theoretically can pitch ads better. But that inevitable march toward monetizing personal data butts up against privacy.”

Imagine the profile Google will amass combining personal data across all of its services, Hendricks said. “Even shrewd Google watchers won’t be able to know what Google is doing with their personal data, much less regular folk.”

The National Association of Attorneys General sent a letter to Google signed by 36 members expressing concern about the new policy. The letter reads in part: “Consumers have diverse interests and concerns, and may want the information in their Web history to be kept separate from the information they exchange via Gmail. Likewise, consumers may be comfortable with Google knowing their search queries but not with it knowing their whereabouts, yet the new privacy policy appears to give them no choice in the matter, further invading their privacy.”

Google defends its actions by saying that if you object to its new information-sharing policy, you can use its privacy tools and edit or turn off your search history or YouTube history. You can also use services such as searches, Maps and YouTube without signing in. Or, the company says, you can stop using Google.

I often won’t register for or sign into a Web site because I don’t want to be tracked. However, I have willingly given up my personal information in exchange for promised discounts. I signed up for a loyalty program at a grocery store, and in return I get discounts on gas and food.

I’ve accepted that we’re in an age where information isn’t power — information is money. I’m resigned to the fact that companies have found more sophisticated ways to track our behavior so they can tailor ever more advertising and marketing pitches to us.

As one reader responding to the Google policy change said: “If you are online, sad to say you already have a digital footprint. So whatever you type and send is on some kind of server somewhere, belonging to someone.”

But what bothers me about Google’s new privacy rule is that you can’t opt out. Give people the choice to be tracked without having to constantly erase their digital footprint. Allow users to easily decide whether they want creepy personalized advertising following their every online move.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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