Google privacy change makes ad data identifiable


Back in June, Google made a small but significant change to its privacy policy; a change which has only just been spotted, but which has a big impact on user privacy.

Google has a reasonably decent reputation on user data privacy; at least for an organisation that makes its money from this data. For the past decade, they have assured users that all personally identifiable data would not be shared with advertisers.

To do this, they kept all of their data separate, with information from sources like Gmail, Google+, and other personal sources being retained separately to data from web browsing and other anonymised data.


Back in 2007, Google purchased an online advertising network called DoubleClick. DoubleClick uses cookies to collect and store data from browsing histories and other sources, which it can apply to help place adverts. This is the basis of the technology it used to tailor adverts for users based on their anonymisable data.

That is until June when they quietly changed their policy to require to opt-in to share more data

Formerly the Google Privacy Policy included a pledge not to “combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent.”

Privacy Crossed Out

Now this section is (literally) crossed out and has been replaced with one which reads “Depending on your Account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google.”

Improving services is little more than a smokescreen however and the real purpose is to make their DoubleClick services more effective and profitable to them. What the change means is that the adverts on Google can now know where you are, regardless of which device you are logging in from. Essentially, they can follow you around.

In a statement given to ProPublica, which broke the story, a Google spokesperson said that the change was in reaction to the growth in smartphone and tablet users. Andrea Faville said, “We updated our ads system, and the associated user controls, to match the way people use Google today: across many different devices.”


She was also at pains to stress that the changes were optional. Existing users were prompted to approve the new changes in June, although the request was titled “Some new features for your Google account” and written as a small print change that the majority of users will just click through.

But if you are a new account holder you will be automatically opted in. Both new and existing customers can opt-out at any time through their ‘My Account Page’. Just uncheck the box marked “Include Chrome browsing history and activity from websites and apps that use Google services.”

But making such data identifiable is a controversial step for Google to take; one which privacy experts have long voiced concerns about. And for Google to make the change in such an underhanded way does not look and gives the impression they were trying to hide something.

Privacy matters and this is something Google knows all too well. It is also something that the public is more aware of and whilst this is not in the same ballpark as the recent Yahoo! Surveillance story, it will still upset a number of their users.

It also illustrates a broader pattern of these tech giants slowly and softly undermining user security in the interests of their own profits. This is a pattern that is likely to continue and is yet more reason for people to be looking to take control of their own online data privacy. It is no longer good enough to trust companies like Google to do it for you.

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