On Tuesday, KCBS co-anchors Jeff Bell and Patti Reising and I talked about Google’s new plan to track brick-and-mortar transactions with online behavior during my daily live radio segment. But before I started explaining the plan, Patti began by saying, “Larry this sounds creepy to me.” And even after I explained Google’s claim that the data is purely aggregate and not associated with any individuals, she still found it creepy. And she was right. Regardless of how well Google encrypts and anonymizes data, any linkages between consumers’ online and offline behaviors will creep people out.
Lots of people are already creeped out when they see ads on third-party sites associated with a previous search either on a seemingly random webpage or an e-commerce site such as Amazon. We’ve all seen these ads pop up on Facebook, in Google searches or other sites we visit, and you may have been creeped out by the fact that they are displaying ads for the very products we searched for on Google, Amazon or other sites. It’s especially creepy when the ad appears on a site that doesn’t appear to be affiliated with the site that actually gathered your information.
How you are tracked
It may actually get worse because Congress recently voted to allow internet service providers to sell your data, which means any site you visit is fair game since ISPs can know everything you do and everywhere you go when you’re on their network. Most internet service providers have privacy policies that limit how they use personal data, but any legal obstacles to disclosing it are diminishing.
When I explained this to my friend, she was relieved to know that her information wasn’t sold, but she still found it creepy to log on to Facebook and find an ad that mentioned her age, gender and location.
How Google’s offline tracking works
Google’s new online and offline matching service for advertisers helps brick-and-mortar businesses know whether people who click on their online ads are actually shopping at their stores by matching credit and debit card transactions with online behavior. Google says that the data is encrypted and anonymized and that even Google can’t see any personally identifiable data or payment information. Google says that the data is presented in aggregate form so that both Google and the advertiser could, for example, know how many people who clicked on their ad wound up buying something from the store.
“While we developed the concept for this product years ago, it required years of effort to develop a solution that could meet our stringent user privacy requirements,” a Google spokesperson said. “To accomplish this, we developed a new, custom encryption technology that ensures users’ data remains private, secure and anonymous.”
The spokesperson also said that “Google only learns of the aggregate value over multiple purchases, not individual transactions or individual products or who the individual person is. Also, we only measure for users who have consented for Web and App History. They have the option to make changes to this setting using the My Accounts page.”
For advertisers, Google’s plan means better insight into the effectiveness of their online campaigns. For Google, it’s a great marketing tool because it can point to its successes when selling ads. For the rest of us, as my colleague Patti said, it’s just plain creepy.
The fuel that monetizes free stuff
Targeted advertising isn’t going away. It’s the fuel that monetizes all of the free online services we’ve come to rely on, and without targeted ads many of these services would lose money or at least operate at a smaller profit. Personally, I prefer the old advertising model used in print, TV and radio where the advertiser knows something about the type of person who reads or tunes in but nothing about that person’s habits. But that type of advertising doesn’t bring in as much money as ads that are targeted and even ads don’t necessarily generate as much money as data about the individuals visiting sites and using apps.
So having to deal with sharing out data may be the price we must pay for all the free services we get online, but I sure hope we find ways way to make it more transparent, more controllable and a lot less creepy.