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Big Brother Google

Like a lot of other people, I have gotten used to the targeted ads that Google serves up as I make my way around the web. When I am using Gmail and get an email message about, say, Vikings, the message is invariably accompanied by a list of ads in the sidebar trying to sell me things like Viking ships or pillaging equipment (or pricey kitchen ranges—the software isn’t always able to pick up on nuances of context). And it no longer surprises me to see frequent banner ads for on websites that I visit, since I have done web searches for soccer gear and have visited in the past.

So far so good. These ads tailored to my specific searches and/or browsing habits were a bit creepy at first, but I’ve gotten used to them, and I (naively, perhaps) trust that Google won’t do anything too sinister with any information it collects about me. I have to admit, however, that I was a bit alarmed when I was visiting a non-Google site (a Yahoo site, in fact) and the following banner ad appeared at the top of the page:

Banner Ad

That string of terms—“oakland airport connector kerry hamill city council”—is an exact Google search that I had performed a day or two beforehand, when I had been looking for information about BART’s Kerry Hamill trying to get the Oakland City Council to delay any discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) of the Oakland Airport Connector last month. (BART has been successfully deploying a “delay plus inevitability” strategy: first argue that it’s too soon to debate the merits of the project because planning isn’t yet far enough along to have complete information, then later argue that it’s too late to debate the merits of the project, because planning is already too far along to change course.)

I have to admit that I was pretty disturbed to see a verbatim string of my Google search terms appearing in a banner ad on a different website. I assume that Google provides the banner ads to the other site (in this case Yahoo, which has an advertising partnership with Google), and I also assume (or at least I hope) that the ad was being served directly from a Google server, so that the third-party site (i.e., Yahoo) never had access to that particular search string, and only someone who happened to be looking at my screen could know that I had performed that search. I did not click on the banner ad, so I can’t say for sure where it would have taken me, but from the look of the underlying target URL, it seemed like clicking on the ad would probably have brought me to some other search engine where I would have found results related to those search terms.

As it happens, this particular Google search is not something that I’m at all embarrassed about, but it’s easy to imagine how this “innovation” in advertising could cause problems for people. Imagine that someone on a lunch break at work does a Google search for an embarrassing medical condition, or for something related to a personal problem in their life, or any number of other private matters. Then the next day,  the person is working on something with a colleague, and when they visit a third-party website, a large banner ad at the top of the page says “Click here for [embarrasing medical condition]” in a large font. Not only could it be pretty mortifying, but depending on the content of the search terms, one can imagine scenarios in which it could cause the worker serious professional problems.

I’m not sure why I find it so creepy to see a verbatim search term parroted back to me by a banner ad, since I already knew that my web habits would be used by Google to tailor ads to me. The ad above, which I have seen several times on a several different visits to a Yahoo website, felt very different from the usual targeted ads I see, which might be based on search terms I have used, but which don’t reference the exact search terms themselves. And admittedly, I’m not well versed in the subtleties of online privacy policies. I spent some time yesterday at Google’s “Privacy Center,” and while they are upfront about using cookies and collecting “aggregated non-personal information,” it’s all pretty vague and I couldn’t find anything specific about how a particular search term could be used to target advertising to users on third-party sites. (This may be a failure on my part, but if the information is there, it wasn’t very easy to find. I sent a message to their privacy people asking for clarification, and if anyone has a better grasp of this stuff, I’d welcome more information.)

I don’t know if this experience will change my web habits—I’m already somewhat careful about what searches I perform, and what sites I frequent, but after this experience, I will probably be even more careful, and I recommend that people use due caution when performing web searches or surfing the web, especially from work computers or computers that are shared with other people. I was so put off by seeing my Google search term in a banner ad that I have been using Bing for my searches for the past 24 hours, not because I trust Microsoft any more than I trust Google (in fact, I trust Microsoft less), but because I already use Google to get my email and my RSS feeds, and somehow it seems like diversifying a bit might be wise, so that at least there is some part of my online life which isn’t being monitored, analyzed and exploited by a single company.

Anyway, my general rule of thumb is that it never hurts to assume that your online activities could become public at some point, or could be turned over to government officials. Most likely one’s online activities won’t ever become public or get turned over to a Federal agency, but really, you never know. Google seems like a relatively benevolent company, and of course they have a strong incentive to protect people’s privacy, since it could be devastating to their business if they became known as a company that didn’t protect user information. On the other hand, they also have incentives to misuse personal information, especially if they can do so without anyone knowing about it, so it might be prudent to go use a computer at the public library if you want to do that search for the embarrassing medical condition or whatever other private matter you want to research. Otherwise you—or your spouse, or your housemate, or your child, or your coworker—might start seeing the search appear in banner ads the next day.