MOUNTAINVIEW, CA – Google recently announced its intention to track the activities of users across almost all of its holdings. Users of YouTube, Gmail, and Google Search will not have the option of opting out. It will apply to all of its services with the exception of Google Wallet, Google Books, and the Chrome web browser.
Google has been quietly collecting most of this information for quite a while. But now, for the first time, it is combining data from across its varied sites to create a unified portrait of its users. The changes take place on March 1st and users will not be able to decline the tracking.
The changes will enable Google to tailor its ads better to individual users’ tastes. If someone lives in Dallas and views a YouTube clip about the Cowboys they may find an ad for Texas stadium in the next Gmail they receive.
Google argues this will be of great benefit to users of its sites. Google’s director of privacy for product and engineering, Alma Whitten, wrote in a blog post, “If you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.”
Industry insiders believe Google is making the move to stave off stiff completion from Apple and Facebook. Both giants have been very successful at building a consolidated approach to gathering information in order to capture people’s attention. Up till now, Google has had a fairly decentralized approach to information gathering.
Consumer advocates paint a different picture of Google’s changes. Common Sense Media chief executive, James Steyer noted, “Google’s new privacy announcement is frustrating and a little frightening. Even if the company believes that tracking users across all platforms improves their services, consumers should still have the option to opt out — especially the kids and teens who are avid users of YouTube, Gmail and Google Search.”
What users may not realize is that tracking runs much deeper than when using one’s personal computer. Google can gather information about users when they activate an Android mobile phone, enter search terms, or sign into their accounts online. Unless users disable cookies on their computer, Google can also see which Web sites users visit or use its maps program to estimate their location.
A number of lawmakers and consumer advocates remain skeptical of Google’s intentions. “There is no way anyone expected this,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “There is no way a user can comprehend the implication of Google collecting across platforms for information about your health, political opinions and financial concerns.” The co-chair of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) agrees: “It is imperative that users will be able to decide whether they want their information shared across the spectrum of Google’s offerings.”
One can be sure all eyes will watching to see what follows for Google. The company has increasingly been a focus of Washington regulators. It has just settled a Federal Trade Commission privacy complaint. That action was due to it allowing users of its now-defunct Google Buzz to view contacts lists from its e-mail program. Federal officials are also considering whether Google is violating antitrust rules by leveraging its online searches to favor its other business lines.