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Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking

[Editor's Note: Today's guest post was originally published by ProPublica on October 21, 2016. It is reprinted with permission.]

Google logo by Julia Angwin, ProPublica

When Google bought the advertising network DoubleClick in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the company's "number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products."

And, for nearly a decade, Google did in fact keep DoubleClick's massive database of web-browsing records separate by default from the names and other personally identifiable information Google has collected from Gmail and its other login accounts.

But this summer, Google quietly erased that last privacy line in the sand -- literally crossing out the lines in its privacy policy that promised to keep the two pots of data separate by default. In its place, Google substituted new language that says browsing habits "may be" combined with what the company learns from the use Gmail and other tools.

The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.

Revised Google privacy terms

The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on the keywords they used in their Gmail. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.

The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry's longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous. In recent years, Facebook, offline data brokers and others have increasingly sought to combine their troves of web tracking data with people's real names. But until this summer, Google held the line.

"The fact that DoubleClick data wasn't being regularly connected to personally identifiable information was a really significant last stand," said Paul Ohm, faculty director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law.

"It was a border wall between being watched everywhere and maintaining a tiny semblance of privacy," he said. "That wall has just fallen."

Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville emailed a statement describing Google's change in privacy policy as an update to adjust to the "smartphone revolution"

"We updated our ads system, and the associated user controls, to match the way people use Google today: across many different devices," Faville wrote. She added that the change "is 100% optional -- if users do not opt-in to these changes, their Google experience will remain unchanged." (Read Google's entire statement.)

Existing Google users were prompted to opt-into the new tracking this summer through a request with titles such as "Some new features for your Google account."

The "new features" received little scrutiny at the time. Wired wrote that it "gives you more granular control over how ads work across devices." In a personal tech column, the New York Times also described the change as "new controls for the types of advertisements you see around the web."

Connecting web browsing habits to personally identifiable information has long been controversial.

Privacy advocates raised a ruckus in 1999 when DoubleClick purchased a data broker that assembled people's names, addresses and offline interests. The merger could have allowed DoubleClick to combine its web browsing information with people's names. After an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, DoubleClick sold the broker at a loss.

In response to the controversy, the nascent online advertising industry formed the Network Advertising Initiative in 2000 to establish ethical codes. The industry promised to provide consumers with notice when their data was being collected, and options to opt out.

Most online ad tracking remained essentially anonymous for some time after that. When Google bought DoubleClick in 2007, for instance, the company's privacy policy stated:

"DoubleClick's ad-serving technology will be targeted based only on the non-personally-identifiable information."

In 2012, Google changed its privacy policy to allow it to share data about users between different Google services - such as Gmail and search. But it kept data from DoubleClick 2013 whose tracking technology is enabled on half of the top 1 million websites -- separate.

But the era of social networking has ushered in a new wave of identifiable tracking, in which services such as Facebook and Twitter have been able to track logged-in users when they shared an item from another website.

Two years ago, Facebook announced that it would track its users by name across the Internet when they visit websites containing Facebook buttons such as "Share" and "Like" 2013 even when users don't click on the button. (Here's how you can opt out of the targeted ads generated by that tracking).

Offline data brokers also started to merge their mailing lists with online shoppers. "The marriage of online and offline is the ad targeting of the last 10 years on steroids," said Scott Howe, chief executive of broker firm Acxiom.

To opt-out of Google's identified tracking, visit the Activity controls on Google's My Account page, and uncheck the box next to "Include Chrome browsing history and activity from websites and apps that use Google services." You can also delete past activity from your account.

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Chanson de Roalnd

Just as Google's holding company, Alphabet, quietly removed the condition or mere aspiration that it would not be evil from its corporate organizing documents, so too it now has removed any pretense that the information that it collects about us isn't personally identifiable. The truth is that work at places like Carnegie Mellon University and MIT had shown that even our presumably unidentifiable information could practically be used to personally identify us. All that was needed was some sophisticated stats and marketing and psychology. Now, Google, Facebook, et al. have removed false pretension and hypocrisy that our travels on the Internet, our searches, our emails, and our postings on the social media and other modalities of the Internet were ever private. So now Google may be evil, if that is necessary to track and identify and profile us everywhere so as to enhance its profits.

Is Google's tracking and identifying use everywhere evil? Well, it certainly isn't virtue, because it destroys privacy. And privacy is essential to human liberty and human dignity and to dissent. Because Google's personally identifying us virtually everywhere and in virtually all of our doings on the Internet destroys privacy and endangers the right to dissent, Google, to the extent that it does so, and it now does so with unrestrained power, destroys human liberty and human dignity, and it is generally agreed that the destruction of human dignity and/or liberty is a wicked thing. So Google is doing evil, which it may now do unabashed, without any injunction or even aspiration that it not be evil.

Now, Google may be the Devil’s child, for now it may destroy our privacy without restraint to maximize its profits.

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