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Google Removes Ban On Personalized Web Tracking

Andrew Orr In the News

Google is the last barrier between anonymous web tracking and your name. But now, the tech giant says it will combine your browsing habits with your advertising profile.

Further Reading

Top 10 Adblockers for Apple iOS devices

You and the Google Privacy Problem

Personally Identifiable Information

Google has been in the advertising business for quite some time now. In 2007, it bought DoubleClick, an advertising network. At the time, founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”

But the Google in 2016 is much different than it was in 2007. According to Statista, Google’s ad revenue in 2007 was $16.41 billion dollars. Now, in 2016 its ad revenue is a whopping $67.39 billion.

Image credit: Statista

Image credit: Statista

For almost ten years the company has in fact kept DoubleClick’s database separate from everything else Google knows about you. Including the contents of your Gmail, your location, web history, and more.

This summer, Google removed two lines in its privacy policy concerning this separation. Instead, the new language says your browsing habits “may be” combined with what Google learns from your use of its services. This policy update is opt-in by default for all users.

Image credit: Propublica

Image credit: ProPublica

Blow To Privacy

This is a major blow to privacy in an ad industry that – until now – has remained mostly anonymous. In a statement to ProPublica, Paul Ohm, faculty director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, said:

“The fact that DoubleClick data wasn’t being regularly connected to personally identifiable information was a really significant last stand…it was a border wall between being watched everywhere and maintaining a tiny semblance of privacy. That wall has just fallen.”

Nowadays, using Google feels like living in a Black Mirror episode. But this isn’t just Google either. Remember, DoubleClick is still its own entity in a way. Even back in 1999, the ad network bought a data broker that combined peoples’ names, addresses, and offline interests. After an investigation [PDF] by the Federal Trade Commission, though, DoubleClick sold the broker at a loss.

In 2012, Google updated its privacy policy to let it share data on users between Google services, like Gmail and search. But it still kept DoubleClick data separate and anonymous. In 2014, Facebook – which is also in the advertising industry – said it would track users by name across the web. Every time a person visits a website with a Share or Like button, they are personally identified and targeted by ads.

Stop Web Tracking

To its credit, Google does provide users an easy way to opt out of web tracking. You can visit the Activity controls found on Google’s My Account page. You can even manage ad settings, to tailor it to your preferences or turn it off altogether. Even if you turn it off, you’ll still see ads, but Google won’t base them off your personal information.

Image credit: Google

Image credit: Google

To delete all saved activity in My Activity:

  • Go to My Activity. You might need to sign in to your Google Account.
  • On the “My Activity” banner, choose More > Delete activity by.
  • Below “Delete by date,” select the Down arrow  > All time.
  • Select Delete.
  • Confirm your choice.