Google's Real Life Tracking - Network Week
ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Mark Falanga

By Mark Falanga

Photo courtesy of MapBox.

It’s safe to say that the majority of people who choose a search engine choose Google. In fact, it’s Compete, Quantacast, and Alexa ranks are all number one. That’s due to the 1 billion unique visitors each month. That’s not their only number one ranking either. Their Android operating system for smartphones has been the industry leader since 2012. It seems we can’t get enough of Google in our lives.

But while the public may like the software giant, what we don’t know is that this affection is reciprocated and then some. Recently, it was discovered that Google was beta testing a program that would track its users’ locations through their smartphones… and the users don’t even have to request it.

Here’s how it works: let’s say you want to buy a cup of coffee at the nearest point to you. Your closest coffee shop can now bid to have their location come up first in your search. Then, once you decide to visit that store, Google will track your location and can pinpoint when you walked into the shop. They can then supply this information to other advertisers to prove that targeted ads actually work.

But will everyone be agreeable with being tracked by a software company?

According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated 68 percent of internet users don’t like the fact that search engines or websites track their visits for the purpose of targeted advertising. Furthermore, six out of 10 younger internet users — a demographic who generally views this practice more favorably — did not approve either.

So it would seem that internet users don’t like to be targeted at all, however, a new survey from the Digital Advertising Alliance says there are limits. When it comes down to free content on the web, like news, weather, and e-mail, more than 75 percent of the internet users they studied prefer ad-supported free content, rather than paying for an ad free experience. Also, the majority wanted ads that were targeted towards them as opposed to random ads.

So it seems the public doesn’t mind targeted ads as long as they get content for free, but a software company tracking us is a different story. After a quick search to find how people respond to digital tracking, a myriad of sites come up that give you step by step instructions on how to stop Google from tracking you. Some sites even tell you how Google tracks you and why it’s so negative. These sites promote anonymous searching and defend privacy online.

One service that Google rolled out early this year, that makes users as queasy as Google tracking does, would be Google’s Shared Endorsements. It would seem that this progression toward tracking out movements was inevitable, as they are already tracking what a user’s friends and relatives are looking for online and generating targeted ads. We are already a part of this web of information mining that Google has undertaken.

However, therein lies the deeper problem. Facebook has 1.11 billion users that willingly post information about themselves for their friends to see. Twitter has over 200 million active users that post 400 million tweets a day about their lives. Not to mention Foursquare which, even though it is not as popular as the previous two sites, still has 33 million users posting where they are to their friends.

It would seem that online users take little issue with their personal information placing it online, since they are so willing to provide this information themselves. Under this light, fears surrounding Google Shared Endorsements and the general tracking of its users may reflect general insecurities about their privacy. After all, there’s almost no end to the surfacing of new stories detailing egregious surveillance over every strata of online activity by US intelligence and law enforcements agencies. On the one hand, there’s a case to be made that we’re becoming desensitized to these reports, on the other hand, our apathy isn’t exactly going quietly.

Further, the complicity of the tech industry in these invasions of privacy also makes the news a little unsurprising. Thus the problem for Google users lies in the fact that, like the NSA, they’re doing this without our consent.

Unlike with Facebook and these other sites where users freely share their information, there is a lack of interacting with technology. It is involuntary and while Google’s real life tracking may be a great tool for advertisers, it may erode the trustworthiness of the site. We may see an increase in users switching to a search engine that doesn’t track and save your searches, like Duckduckgo.com.

Whether or not Google’s real life tracking ever comes to fruition is still not clear, but if it does, be mindful of how you use your GPS, because if you don’t know where you are… Google does.

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