By Michelle Singletary
Several weeks ago, I purchased some exercise videos online. Then I noticed that whenever I did an Internet search about anything, an ad for that same video package and other similar workout videos kept popping up. It was spooky.
The whole thing reminded me of two scenes from the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report.” In one, as Cruise is walking through a mall, various holographic ads pop up. There’s a commercial for Lexus and, as Cruise strolls along, a voiceover says: “The road you’re on, John Anderton, is the one less traveled.” Another says: “John Anderton! You could use a Guinness right about now.” It’s creepy.
In another scene, Cruise, who has gotten a new pair of eyes to avoid detection by the authorities, walks into a Gap store. His eyes are scanned and a projected salesperson on a large screen refers to an earlier purchase by a “Mr. Yakamoto,” the previous owner of Cruise’s new eyes.
Google says the policy changes have more to do with enhancing the services it provides than they do in advertising products and services. In fact, the company says it does not sell, trade or rent personally identifiable user information.
But do you see the wordplay here? Companies place ads that are matched to your online behavior. Your specific information may be anonymous, but it becomes a better commodity under Google’s new policy.
“Google is proof of the tremendous economic value of individuals’ personal information,” said Evan Hendricks, editor and publisher of Privacy Times. “Because Google can collect data on individuals’ specific interests through their Google searches, Gmail, YouTube, it theoretically can pitch ads better. But that inevitable march toward monetizing personal data butts up against privacy.”
Imagine the profile Google will amass combining personal data across all of its services, Hendricks said. “Even shrewd Google watchers won’t be able to know what Google is doing with their personal data, much less regular folk.”
Google defends its actions by saying that if you object to their new information sharing policy, use its privacy tools and edit or turn off your search history or YouTube history. You can also use the services such as searches, Maps and YouTube and just not sign in. Or, the company says, stop using Google.
I often won’t register for or sign into a website because I don’t want to be tracked. However, I have willingly given up my personal information in exchange for promised discounts. I signed up for a loyalty program at a grocery store, and in return I get discounts on gas and food.
I’ve accepted that we’re in an age where information isn’t power; information is money. I’m resigned to the fact that companies have found more sophisticated ways to track our behavior so they can tailor ever more advertising and marketing pitches to us.
As one reader responding to the Google policy change said: “If you are online, sad to say you already have a digital footprint. So whatever you type and send is on some kind of server somewhere, belonging to someone.”
But what bothers me about Google’s new privacy rule is you can’t opt out. Give people the choice to be tracked without having to constantly erase their digital footprint. Allow users to easily decide if they want creepy personalized advertising following their every online move.
Michelle Singletary: email@example.com.
Washington Post Writers Group