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    In Major Shift, Google Uses Individuals’ Search Data for Targeted Ads

    Disclosure: I have both disagreed and agreed with various Google actions over the last few years.

    Saul Hansell over at NY Times’ Bits blog reports:

    Google’s massive reservoir of data about online behavior, gathered by tracking hundreds of millions of computers, is like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is a resource that might or might not be exploited safely, and there certainly should be a robust debate before the drilling starts.

    Google assigns every computer that visits its sites a unique identifying number — known as a cookie — and records searches and other activities in an unimaginably large file along with those cookies. The company has maintained that it hasn’t used any of that information to draw inferences about users to target ads.

    Until now.

    Google acknowledges that it is now testing ways to use some of the data it has been gathering to better aim search ads at Web surfers, although it won’t say how.

    This small change in Google’s behavior was first discovered by Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray[.]

    Hansell notes that this use of individual search data for targeted advertising is the complete opposite of what Google has said in the past.

    Since Google has been so emphatic that it hasn’t used cookies in its ad system, it may well owe users notification that that is changing, even in tests. And as it starts to use more data, some users may want the ability to preclude the use of their online activity for advertising.

    [A Google representative ]declined to talk about what variables are fed into its advertising system other than to give two examples: location and time of day. The topic simply isn’t discussed in Google’s privacy policy, its frequently asked questions page about privacy, or its privacy videos, such those about search privacy and cookies.

    Note that Google is currently embroiled in a dispute (in which Privacy Lives is involved) over its refusal to follow California law and place a link to the search engine’s privacy policy on its home page.

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