"If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." -- a user named "blue_beetle" on MetaFilter
As of March 1, if you hadn't erased your Google Web History and switched the feature off, you will have made a big mistake because Google has set itself on a course that will allow the company to find out way too much about you ... at least, way too much about you if you have any interest in maintaining your privacy.
Here's how The Google framed the change in its original January blog posting on the topic:
"... there's so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with ... well, you. We can make search better -- figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it's January, but maybe you're not a gym person, so fitness ads aren't that useful to you. We can provide reminders that you're going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day. Or ensure that our spelling suggestions, even for your friends' names, are accurate because you've typed them before. People still have to do way too much heavy lifting, and we want to do a better job of helping them out."
The post makes it sound like The Google is just trying to simplify things and make your life easier and better ... but wait! This is, in reality, much like calling a root canal procedure a "simple, fun, and hygiene-supporting oral cavity health enhancement process." The nice, comfy, weaselly words hide the fact that something much more complex and uncomfortable is involved.
What The Google's new policy allows for is the integration of your Web history, which includes searches and sites visited, with all of your activities on other services provided by The Google, such as YouTube, Google Docs, Gmail and so on.
What The Google wants to do is slice and dice where you go, what you look for, what you look at, and what you consume so it can make your life better ... just kidding ... so it can make loads of money by helping other people sell to you more efficiently and more effectively.
If you doubt the power of the insights that can be gained by mining data, just consider what can be determined by looking at what users collectively search for. Quite some time ago The Google released a service called "Flu Trends." By simply looking for anonymous searches that are related to influenza, The Google was able to predict flu outbreaks considerably earlier than health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control have been able to.
I think you'll agree that's pretty impressive, but now think of the insights into your life and behavior that could be garnered by compiling all of your individual data then slicing and dicing it and comparing that to that of all of the other users of The Google's services. The Google's predictive ability would become positively god-like!
Again, should you doubt the power of what are called "predictive analytics," just consider the recent tale of data mining at Target as reported in an excellent article in The New York Times: Target's marketing department apparently wanted to determine if a customer was pregnant even if she didn't want Target to know. They asked this creepy question because, according to the article, "new parents are a retailer's holy grail."
It turns out that consumers' shopping habits are mostly fixed and very hard to change. You, for example, might always buy your groceries at Ralph's, your toys at Toys R Us, get your prescriptions from CVS, and so on, but when a new baby arrives these habits are far more malleable because the parents' lives are in turmoil (maybe "chaos" would be a better description).
What Target wanted to do was "educate" expectant mothers that Target is a one-stop shop where the majority of day-to-day consumer requirements are available, thus simplifying their newly complicated lives.
While births are a matter of public record (as anyone who has had a child knows because you are immediately bombarded with endless sales offers relating to your new and exhausting status), being pregnant is essentially (but only for now) a private matter.
So, Target's marketing folk reasoned, because we monitor shopping habits in detail, there might be enough data to determine if a customer was pregnant and, if so, that would enable Target to send expectant mothers advertising weeks or months in advance of the birth and potentially change the parents' buying habits.
Now, you may be wondering, how does Target monitor consumer's shopping habits? Actually it is pretty straightforward: It assigns a "Guest ID" to each customer to which is attached any and all data, including every credit card transaction, every website visit, every survey filled out, every coupon redeemed ... in fact, everything and anything is grist for Target's data mill.
Along with that data it also assembles consumers' demographic data. According to the NYT article this includes "your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you've moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what websites you visit."
In addition, Target buys data about "your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you've ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own."
This may sound insane, but don't think Target is even remotely unusual in its customer data acquisition and mining practices.
Target has a department named "Guest Marketing Analytics" and its ace statisticians looked at the mountains of data and concluded that there were, indeed, certain buying patterns that indicated not just that a customer was pregnant, but also when, approximately, she was due! Thus, Target started sending out promotions based on these insights and, sure enough, the promotions worked!
Then about a year after the strategy had been implemented, a man walked into a Target store and complained angrily to the manager that his 14-year old daughter had been sent offers for cribs and baby clothes. He was, it was reported, furious and asked "Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?"
The manager was very apologetic and some days later called the father to apologize again. Much to the manager's surprise it was the father's turn to be apologetic. He had talked with his daughter and to his surprise she was, indeed, pregnant! Target knew before the girl's family just by mining data!
So, what of The Google's plans? Well, considering the incredible breadth and depth of The Google's market reach, in the predictive analytics world, Target looks like a non-starter by comparison!
The reason for this is that for many people The Google is their primary, if not their only, entry point into the Internet where, studies show, they are spending an increasing amount of time being entertained as well as buying and selling products of all kinds and researching everything from holidays to their medical conditions. The Google's position is rather what Target's would be if every visit to any and all department stores started from Target's corporate lobby.
As the starting point for just about everything people do online, The Google stands a good chance of knowing you better than your spouse does! Targeting ads will become better and better, response rates will improve, and no matter what The Google and other businesses say, your privacy will be up for sale not to the highest bidder but to any bidder.
The problem for us ordinary mortals is that the corporate machines that we're dealing with and which provide us with all of these nice, cool, free services see us simply as product to be bought and sold, and our privacy as a mere and increasingly insignificant obstacle.
The only way this will change is if we as a culture demand change. For example, we could demand much stronger privacy laws similar to those of the European Union.
How does it feel to be a product?
Gibbs is a man, not a QR code, in Ventura, Calif. Send your product details to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).
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