Google is the most powerful tool in history for gathering information. With just a couple of taps on the keyboard you can access a dizzying range of information on everything from theoretical physics to cats—especially cats. But Google doesn’t just curate information from the far-reaching corners of the World Wide Web; it also uses its complex algorithms to gather information on you.
The search engine giant tracks what you search for and uses that information to help advertisers target you with specially-tailored marketing. Have you been browsing reviews of new cars? Expect to see some ads for Volkswagen and Chevrolet popping up during your travels through the Internet. When it works well, these targeted ads can help consumers stumble on new products they didn’t know they wanted. In theory, it’s a win-win for both the sellers and the shoppers.
But there’s a flip side. Suppose you were searching for something private, something you’d prefer that your coworkers or friends didn’t know about. Maybe it’s sensitive stuff, dealing with financial struggles or health issues. Say that a colleague or friend happened upon your browser and, knowing that Google targets its users with ads based on their search history, sees a bunch of banner ads for adult diapers or debt consolidation—essentially broadcasting information you might not have been ready to share.
This, argued a Canadian man last January, is exactly what happened to him. The unnamed man said that he’d used Google to look for information on Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines that help people suffering from sleep apnea. Soon after his searches he began to see ads for CPAP machines on websites he visited—websites totally unrelated to sleep apnea like weather and news sites. He felt that Google was using sensitive information to target him with ads, violating his privacy, and he lodged a complaint with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
Canada’s privacy experts agreed: Google was breaching the man’s privacy.
“Google’s online advertising service used sensitive information about individuals’ online activities to target them with health-related advertisements, contrary to Canadian privacy law,” states a news release from the privacy commissioner from January 15, 2014. “Online behavioural advertising guidelines issued by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada two years ago make clear that advertisers should avoid collecting sensitive personal information, such as individuals’ health information, for the purpose of delivering tailored ads.”
In fact, Google has a policy in place meant to prevent these kinds of things from happening. The policy states that “Google will not associate sensitive interest categories with your cookie (such as those based on race, religion, sexual orientation, health, or sensitive financial categories) and will not use these categories when showing you interest-based ads.”
So what went wrong here? Google blamed the advertisers involved. The search engine company doesn’t generally produce the ads—that’s the job of the advertisers themselves. Instead the companies are asked to conform to Google’s policies, stating in a release that “Google requires all advertisers using this platform to agree to specific policies which prohibit all forms of interest based advertising involving sensitive categories, including the use of user lists based on “health or medical information.””
Canada’s privacy commissioner wasn’t satisfied. They want Google to do a better job of keeping tabs on advertisements to make sure they are in line with company guidelines. Google agreed. Now, the company is promising to take some concrete steps to avoid another CPAP misstep. Google said that by June they’d provide their advertisers with more information on what was appropriate for remarketing campaigns, beef up their automated review system, increase staff training on the issue, and boost their monitoring of marketing campaigns. And they’ve stopped CPAP marketing campaigns.
The privacy commissioner acknowledged that Google is certainly not the only one at fault. Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier stated that: “We also have concerns about whether other advertising networks are complying with Canadian privacy law. We will be contacting various advertising stakeholders in the near future to share these investigation results and remind them of their privacy obligations.” That means advertisers will have to be very careful not to step over the line and target their marketing campaigns using sensitive information.
The Internet has become such an ingrained part of life for so many people that we can forget that it’s still developing as a technology and as a concept. The ethical problems around privacy and advertisers are still being sorted. And we’re in a frontier time when it comes to rules about collecting people’s personal information. Expect to see more stories like this as the boundaries of the Internet become more and more established. That, and be careful what you search for.