Google’s new program to track shoppers sparks federal privacy complaint
A prominent privacy rights watchdog is asking the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate a new Google advertising program that ties consumers’ online behaviour to their purchases in brick-and-mortar stores.
The legal complaint from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, filed with the FTC on Monday, alleges that Google is newly gaining access to a trove of highlysensitive information — the credit and debit card purchases records of the majority of U.S. consumers — without revealing how they got the information or giving consumers’ meaningful ways to opt out. Moreover, the group claims that the search giant is relying on a secretive technical method to protect the data — a method that should be audited by outsiders and is likely vulnerable to hacks or other data breaches.
“Google is seeking to extend its dominance from the online world to the real, off-line world, and the FTC really needs to look at that,” said Marc Rotenberg, the organization’s executive director.
Google called its advertising approach “common” and said it had “invested in building a new, custom encryption technology that ensures users’ data remains private, secure and anonymous.”
Executives have hailed the program, Store Sales Measurement, as a “revolutionary” breakthrough in advertisers’ abilities to track consumer behaviour. The company said that, for the first time, it would be able to prove, with a high degree of confidence, that clicks on online ads led to purchases at the cash register of physical stores.
To do this, Google said it had obtained access to the credit and debit card records of 70 per cent of U.S. consumers. It had then developed a mathematical formula that would anonymize and encrypt the transaction data, and then automatically match the transactions to the millions of U.S. users of Google and Google-owned services like Gmail, search, YouTube, and maps. This approach prevents Google from accessing the credit or debit card data for individuals.
In a statement, Google said that it had taken pains to build custom encryption technology that ensures that the data the company receives remains private and anonymous.
The privacy organization is asking the government not to not take Google’s word for it and to review the algorithm itself. Google would not disclose which companies were providing it with the transaction records. When asked if users had consented to having their credit and debit transactions shared, Google would not specifically say. The company replied that it requires that its unnamed partners have “the rights necessary” to use this data.
In its complaint, the privacy group alleges that if consumers don’t know how Google gets its purchase data, then they cannot make an informed decision about which cards not to use or where not to shop if they don’t want their purchases tracked.