Friday, April 6, 2012

Are You Following Me?

Did you read Google’s new privacy policy as of March 1? Nope, neither did I.

The primary piece of news is that Google is now consolidating tracking information from all of their services. This means you have the same login, profile, and preferences for Gmail, Google Apps, YouTube, and more. That’s not scary – since before Google was a college project; AOL and Microsoft, among many other services, have had a single login so your mail and instant messenger shared contact lists.

What is scary is that Google can consolidate your information across sites that you don’t log in to explicitly or sites you don’t realize are part of the Google family. For example, if you read a blog about the Parthenon on Blogspot and search for information on passports; the next time you check your mail you may see ads for Mediterranean cruises.

This is because one web service can track you across multiple websites. Since ads on many websites may come from the same ad server, you can be tracked even if the address you enter is a completely unrelated to any other place you’ve been.

Many web services pay close attention to where you came from, what you do, and where you go to build a profile of you. The more they know about you, the more valuable you are to advertisers and the more they can charge. (They’re not necessarily identifying you as a person by name and credit card number, but you as a 45-55-year-old male in a large southern city with 2 kids in college and an income over $80,000.)

However, if you’ve been logged in to a site that tracks you – such as Google – then they can tie your information to a real person with a name, address, credit card number, and possibly other details you’ve given them or their partners. They may not use all that information, but it makes your ads – and search results – more focused. (It may also make your search results less diverse. If you have previously selected the Washington Post, you may never again see a result from Fox News.)

I’m not picking on Google exclusively. Google just happens to be the biggest target today. I am less concerned being tracked by Google than I might be by a lot of other services.

The good news is that you should be able to ameliorate a lot of the techniques to track you that web sites use. Keep reading here:

But if you really want to be scared about tracking, your smartphone itself and many of the apps you’ve installed may be able to track you – not on the web, but in real life. And at the moment, there may be no way to control that tracking while still taking advantage of the reasons you got a smartphone.

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