Sat, Mar 03, 2012 - Page 16 News List

Are your secrets safe?

The free services Google provides are seen as justification enough to allow it to monetize the data gathered in the process

By James Ball  /  The Guardian, London

Someone’s been reading your e-mail. They know what you’ve been looking at online. They almost certainly have a photograph of your house. If you’ve got a smartphone, they even know where you’ve been and what you’ll be doing next week.

It’s not a new hacking saga, though. It’s the standard business practices of Internet staple Google, which from Thursday, is, for the first time, able to join together everything they know about you to customize its services and better hone advertising.

There’s a mantra in certain online communities that says that if you’re getting a service for free, you are not that company’s customer you’re the product. Google’s core product is its huge wealth of information on the people who use its services, which allows for the sale of highly targeted and effective advertisements to its users.

The company certainly has no shortage of information to collect. Google has a 78 percent share of the search engine market, dwarfing by far its nearest rival Baidu, the Chinese search operator. Around 350 million people use its Gmail product, and some 3 billion videos are played every day on Google-owned YouTube.

Google has around half of the global smartphone market, and can collect location information from the devices. It even has a fifth of all Internet browsers, and almost half of the online advertising share.

The search giant has been able to use the troves of information collected from these platforms for a long time. Google’s computers “read” the content of all its users’ e-mails to hone the adverts that run alongside. Search engine history is used to learn about what kind of person you are and how you use the Web, to better target adverts and to deliver better results.

From this week, all of this information can be linked together. Information gained from your phone could be used to deliver a local ad in your online search results. A YouTube history consisting of karaoke singalongs may be used to inform recommendations of nearby bars on your smartphone. An e-mail to a friend saying “I’m pregnant!” could conceivably lead to some maternity-wear ads elsewhere.

Google says its changes to privacy policies are largely aimed at simplification. Each of the company’s 70-plus services has had a separate policy until now, and these are being amalgamated into one. The policy will increase Google’s ability to monetize its audience, but also improve personalization and delivery of results and contents. There is a win-win side to the changes.

But not everyone is convinced. The EU is investigating Google’s new policy to see if it complies with tough Europe-wide data protection regulations. Others are troubled by the slow creep of Google’s collated information, and how it uses it — never moving in big steps, but always advancing.

Google has run afoul of regulators on several occasions for collecting too much data. It’s Street View service, which takes pictures of millions of streets around the world and ties them with its mapping service, was taken to the supreme court in Germany for invasion of privacy last year. Google won its case, but abandoned plans to expand the service in the country, partly due to this opposition.

Street View faced another scandal when it emerged that private details of people’s Wi-Fi networks were being collected by its camera cars, leading to all such data collection being stopped. Last year, the Guardian revealed that Google — just like Apple — had been tracking the movements of people using its Android smartphones.

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