NI­COLE KOBIE

Google wants to prove its ads work by track­ing you ev­ery­where.

PC Pro - - November 2017 Issue 277 - Ni­cole Kobie is PC Pro’s Fu­tures ed­i­tor. And yes Google, she did in­deed buy the shoes: they were £20 and fit nicely, thanks. @njko­bie

Google’s on­line stalk­ing has moved off­line, in­vad­ing our pri­vacy sim­ply to prove that the ads it splat­ters all over the web re­ally do work.

We ex­pect to be fol­lowed by ads on­line. Search for an item — let’s say shoes, as I went on a foot-fo­cused shop­ping spree this month — and click through to a re­tailer’s site, and those bal­let flats will stalk you for weeks af­ter­ward, re­gard­less of whether you bought them or not.

John Lewis and other brick-and-mor­tar stores used to worry we’d browse in per­son but buy on Ama­zon, Google is wor­ried about the re­verse: that we’ll use the web to find the shoes we want, but head to the shops to try them on and spend our cash where it can’t be eas­ily tracked.

Lit­tle won­der it’s wor­ried, as Google makes the bulk of its rev­enue from ad sales. In the sec­ond quar­ter of 2017, $22 bil­lion of its $26 bil­lion of rev­enue came from advertising, which it uses to fund other projects, such as self-driv­ing cars and Gmail, with­out us hav­ing to open our wal­lets.

To prove that on­line advertising does prompt off­line pur­chases, Google started buy­ing pay­ment card records, with re­ports sug­gest­ing it cap­tures data on 70% of all Amer­i­cans. Us­ing card data reg­is­tered to Google pro­files and af­fil­i­ated sites, it can tie your on­line per­sona to the card pur­chas­ing data it buys, and with that linked data show re­tail­ers that you’ve seen an ad for those

shoes on­line but bought them off­line in­stead. It’s a lot of ef­fort to prove web advertising isn’t use­less.

Tech-savvy sort that you surely are, given you read this par­tic­u­lar mag­a­zine, you’re prob­a­bly groan­ing at my whing­ing – just get an ad blocker, al­ready. Thank­fully, in the on­line world we still have some limited power left and can block ad­ver­tise­ments that fol­low us across the web, nag­ging us about shoes or what­ever other prod­uct we once dig­i­tally glanced at.

But there’s no opt out for Google’s off­line sur­veil­lance. You can’t stop it from buy­ing your card data so, short of pay­ing with cash all the time, the only way to pre­vent the web gi­ant from link­ing pur­chases to your ac­count is to not have a Google pro­file – swap its Search for Duck­DuckGo, Vi­valdi for Chrome, Bing Maps for Google’s own, and so on. It’s cer­tainly pos­si­ble, and good luck with it.

That doesn’t help the mil­lions of peo­ple with­out the know-how or time to dodge Google’s reach on the web, so good luck also to pri­vacy ad­vo­cate EPIC, which has filed a com­plaint with the FTC, ask­ing the Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ca­tions reg­u­la­tor to in­ves­ti­gate Google’s off­line track­ing of in-store splurges.

Google has re­sponded that it doesn’t know the names or other per­son­al­lyi­den­ti­fy­ing data from the card records. But for this to work, Google needs to know what ads it shows a user, and con­nect that with their off­line pay­ment card pur­chases. Google’s data­base may well iden­tify me via a ran­dom series of dig­its rather than my name, but it knows who I am – or can if it wants to. The com­pany is privy to ev­ery­thing from my lo­ca­tion to my ty­pos – I’m writ­ing this in a Google Doc, for cry­ing out loud. Google also claims that it doesn’t pass on our de­tails to its ad­ver­tis­ers, who are merely told that a cer­tain per­cent­age of peo­ple shown an ad on­line later shopped at the store off­line.

Re­gard­less of Google’s de­fence, what it adds up to is un­prece­dented sur­veil­lance, costly data gath­er­ing, and cut­ting-edge an­a­lyt­ics – all to check if that an ad for shoes led me to buy them.

Don’t only blame Google. We’ve built the web us­ing a pre­car­i­ous busi­ness model, and Google has re­alised that. But rather than find a so­lu­tion, it’s en­gi­neer­ing re­mark­able ways to ar­ti­fi­cially hold up this house of cards.

I want driver­less cars as much as the next per­son, and love not pay­ing for Gmail, but rather than spend its time on in­cred­i­ble feats of data en­gi­neer­ing, Google needs to find a bet­ter way to pay for it all. Put those smarts to use on find­ing the suc­ces­sor to in­va­sive advertising, not hold­ing up a failed sys­tem.

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