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Recently, I searched online for a “swim pedometer,” something to count distance and calories. The next day, I read an article on the Syracuse Post-Standard website and noticed a whole bunch of ads for swimming gear.

Coincidence? I think not.

Websites have long been using data from our posts, searches and browsing history to tailor our experiences. Facebook is the king of all data mining, deciding which of our friends to highlight in the News Feed and which advertisements to show us.

But many people think Google has gone too far in revamping its privacy policy. Here’s an excerpt of the policy:

…there’s so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with … well, you…We can provide more relevant ads…We can provide reminders that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day. Or ensure that our spelling suggestions, even for your friends’ names, are accurate because you’ve typed them before. People still have to do way too much heavy lifting, and we want to do a better job of helping them out.

An entertaining column in the Washington Post asks Google not to be “creepy” and said this feels like the loss of anonymity on the Internet:

Ten years ago, if your mailman had demanded to follow you around, taking note of all your appointments, giving you directions and asking to see all the pictures you took and videos you watched, “Look,” you might have said, “you’re very good, but can you stick to delivering mail unless I ask you to do otherwise? You already read all my letters and send me ads for enhancement services that I did not know I required. And this is getting a little disturbing.” Even worse if it’s the silent man at the library who looks up esoterica for you.

PC Magazine points out Google’s new privacy policy doesn’t spell out new practices as much as it is a wake up call. Google already collects a lot of information about users. Google will now collect our information as we jump across services, from Google mail to Google search to Google Plus. It will have a fuller picture of our identities.

Google says it won’t give our information to advertisers and we will be able to adjust our privacy settings. But you can’t really “opt out” unless you never log into Google services. I’m not convinced there are alternatives that won’t do exactly the same thing. When we go online, we are automatically placing a terrifying amount of trust in the websites we visit.

Either Google is pioneering a truly fantastic way to integrate the Internet into our lives or this is some scary stuff. Maybe it’s both.

4 Responses to Privacy? What Privacy?

  1. I think it is concerning remember the ads in Minority Report when Tom Cruise walks through the mall? It is happening all over. Take a look at some of the statements being made on why Race to the Top is forcing school districts to put standardized tests online and get more information on “what students are thinking” etc. http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2011/04/high_tech_testing_on_the_way_a.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB
    When will it stop? This is a business That just asked people to refuse to allow Congress to prohibit the free flow of ideas and are doing their own job of controlling what information is offered to the public.

    • I’m concerned, but not sure what I could do about it even I wanted. Facebook has set the bar and Google is following right along. Maybe I’m used to the thought of my online life being catalogued?

  2. I usually delete my browsing history and cookies at least once per week. I find this minimizes the number of ads I receive. An easy browser clean-up is accomplished by going to Accessories, then to System Tools, and finally clicking onto Disk Cleanup. This will erase any recent activity.

  3. Lynn E: It will stop when you tell it to stop 🙂

    Thanks for writing this Rachel. As a web analyst, I can tell you that as an industry, we discuss best practices a lot, and those always include making it VERY EASY for a consumer to know what’s being tracked, and to stop it from being tracked.

    That all said, not all websites are built by honest companies, and some of them in fact are built overseas and don’t follow our laws or codes of ethics. And, adhering to the best practices oath isn’t even a requirment here if you don’t want to be a member of the Web Analytics Association.

    I’d further argue that some of the same people that complain the most about internet privacy are they same people that expect UNREASONABLE privacy, or open themselves up in worse ways by handing their credit cards to waitstaff, or tossing out important documents into the trash without shredding them.

    I do understand why people get upset about this. And most data collected by websites is 100% anonymous (unless you are logged in.. see terms and conditions for every website you sign up for). You have to know what you’re doing at all times though, online and off.

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