Online privacy is something we have discussed a lot at Costa Connected – the balance between accessing services and information freely and in a relevant way, versus the privacy to do so without anyone watching. Our recent article about the Google “supercookies” provoked a number of questions and concerns from readers, who had been unaware of the extent to which their online browsing habits were tracked and responded to.
And as I have said many times, online nothing is truly secret. Whether it’s a huge long Google/Amazon cookie tempting us with pictures of things it knows we might be interested in buying, or the US National Security Agency surveilling our every move, it’s all out there if you have the right tools to access the information. And even the bits behind passwords, firewalls or VPNs can be breached and exposed by anyone determined enough, as we have discussed in previous articles about identity theft, phishing and password security.
Of course what protects most of us is that our internet use and behaviour is unnoticeably hidden in plain sight amongst the billions and billions of data transactions that are occurring online line every minute of every day.
Google doesn’t care that you personally just searched for treatment for an embarrassing medical condition, or a good spot for a tryst with your secret lover – you might find some revealing ads following you around in your next few days browsing that’s all.
But Google isn’t going to send an employee round to your house to point and snigger and ask you how that little problem is healing up now you’ve found the right ointment – because it’s a machine (well quite a few machines really, but whatever), and it doesn’t care. Could a human working at Google access that information and connect it with you as an individual? Potentially yes I believe so, if they had any reason to, or the FBI told them to – they would have to have a reason. But all you are in the great scheme of things is just one more bit of data, in a sea of ones and zeroes frankly too big to wrap the human brain around anyway.
Similarly, Google doesn’t care what your email is about. There was a huge scandal a few years ago when Gmail was found to be serving up contextual ads alongside your email messages, that appeared to relate in some way to the content of the email. Privacy alert – Google must have read my message! Well, yes they had, or at least their search bots had, just as they read and index any web page to add it to their search directory (no, they don’t do that to your emails don’t worry!)
But to offer you a versatile premium and responsive email service completely free, with huge amounts of free storage too, of course it’s going to show you ads. And the whole premise to the way Google ads work is that they are served to the right audience at the right time, who are most likely to be interested in that information at that moment.
If you are an advertiser buying ads on Google you choose which keywords you are interested in, and Google tells you what that’s going to cost, to appear in a good position – you need to be very clear what words and phrases interest you, and the more specific the better. And you only pay for the ad when someone clicks on it.
Say my company sells dog grooming products from a shop in Alicante – there is no point Google showing my ad to the biggest dog lover in Alaska. So I need to make sure my ad targets people mentioning dogs, their care, and the right location – because if the dog lover in Alaska sees ‘Best Doggy Parlour on the Costa Blanca’ in their news feed, they aren’t going to click – so I don’t get a qualified visitor to my website, and Google don’t get a fee for the click.
But imagine our friend with the huskies wants to leave the snowy wastes and relocate to the Mediterranean sunshine, they might search on Google for ‘dog grooming Spain’ or whatever, then they need to be shown my ad. Google spots the keyword in their search, and matches it to the ads in their queue (according to how much the advertiser has bid in relation to other advertisers, to show ads on that keyword – very complicated – but that’s the gist)
It’s easy to see how this works in email too, it’s all completely automatic – keyword scanning. So if the Alaskan emailed his friend saying “I am thinking of moving to Spain with my dogs, I am interested in the Alicante area possibly assuming I can find somewhere that does good enough dog grooming around there…”, then the Google algorithm will match ‘dog’ – ‘Spain’ – ‘Alicante’ – ‘dog grooming’ and automatically place a small contextual ad for my doggy boutique, right there on his page on gmail.com
Google really isn’t bothered who he is, where he lives, or how well clippered his dog is, it’s all automated.
Now don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that corporations the size of the ‘big G’ need careful observation, legal scrutiny, and holding to account. They can make or break businesses and whole economies by changing their algorithms, of course they need watching.
But in my own opinion, you shouldn’t worry overmuch about what they know about you personally, assuming you have nothing you need to hide legally no one at Google is too concerned.
Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, October 18th 2013 ©Maya Middlemiss, Casslar Consulting SL