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    USA Today: Google’s G1 phone makes it easy to track surfing habits

    USA Today reports on the ease with which Google and select partners can track individual users’ online surfing habits with the G1 smartphone. People love using smartphones (I have one), because of their many benefits and ease of use. But, remember that the data you send could be gathered and used by others without your informed permission or knowledge. 

    This personal data is valuable because is specific to the (usually one) person who uses the phone, which makes it easier to build a customer profile for targeted advertising. Also, as USA Today notes, you have no control over this data once it is in someone else’s hands. “Once your information has been collected and stored, there’s no way to get rid of it. You can’t see what’s been collected or have it expunged. It’s Google’s for as long as it wants to hold onto it.”

    The new Google phone, dubbed the G1, has been touted as a working man’s smartphone — a cheap, Web-friendly wireless device that can make life easier for millions of consumers.

    The G1, as it turns out, also stands to make life a whole lot easier for Google — by making it a snap to track your movements on the mobile Web and send you ads as it does on the desktop. The device, sold exclusively by T-Mobile, gives Google access to your e-mail, instant messages, contact lists, Web-search history and geographic location. By keeping tabs on your mobile life, Google (GOOG) can quickly figure out what sort of ads to send your way, and when.

    “It’s like a walking surveillance device,” says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer watchdog group. […]

    Yahoo, Microsoft and other ad-supported search engines collect information as Google does. But the sheer size and scope of Google’s data-mining operation — the Web giant performs more than 80% of all desktop searches worldwide — makes it a uniquely pervasive presence, says Chester. […]

    Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel for Google, says Google tries to make privacy language as “transparent” as possible. Anne Toth, head of privacy for Yahoo, says, “Trust is a fundamental part of our business.” […]

    On the downside, once you fire up the G1, you’re on Google’s radar — whether you like it or not.

    To use the device, users must set up a Google account. The registration process creates a “personal identifier” — basically, a number that Google uses to store information about you, which Google does not consider to be personal information.

    It enables Google to field your search queries quickly when you’re on the run. It also gives Google access to your contact lists, IMs, e-mails, personal calendar, social networking and video downloading — the videos you’d fess up to publicly, as well as the ones you might not. As for all those “personal photos” swapped with pals on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter: Google can grab those, too.

    Everything gets crammed into your personal “file,” so to speak, along with a lot of other stuff — such as where you bank, shop and cruise on the Web when you’re lonely, bored or just in the mood for a little fun.

    USA Today also has a story on Google’s mobile advertising strategy. The newspaper obtained a copy of a May 2008 presentation (acknowledged by Google to be authentic) on mobile phone ads by a Google employee to advertisers.

    What’s Google’s long-term mobile ad strategy? Publicly, the Web giant has said little about that, but last spring, at a briefing with advertisers, it offered some insight. In the presentation — titled “Google Mobile and What’s Next: Little screen, big opportunity” — the Web giant says it sees a number of advertising opportunities in mobile.

    High on the list: “Local Relevant.” That’s the idea of using local search results — local pizza parlors, for example — to provide links for “instant action” such as clicking on a number to call the restaurant, or on a business name to link to a map. […]

    In the presentation, Google also makes the case that mobile presents an opportunity to “reach out to captive users on the go.” To illustrate that point, a slide depicts a search box with the word “burgers” typed in. Alongside it is another box showing search results, with an ad for Burger King stripped across the top.

    On another page — “Google Mobile Ads” — the Web giant identifies two kinds of mobile ads: “contextual targeting,” which is Google-speak for ads that are relevant to a local activity, say, finding a local spa within a certain ZIP code; and “Image Ads,” which offer an actual image (photo, graphic, illustration, etc.) of a product, say, a new Apple laptop. Both also are variations of what it currently does on the desktop.

    Another slide boasts that Google “can measure clicks, impressions and conversions for all (ad) campaigns.” Google does that on the desktop, as well. In both cases, Google uses “cookies” as a tracking tool.

    Last month, the Center for Democratic Media  Center for Digital Democracy [at www.democraticmedia.org] and US Public Interest Research Group filed a complaint (pdf) with the Federal Trade Commission about mobile advertising companies. (Disclosure: I am currently working with both groups on this complaint’s issues.) The groups urged the FTC:

    to launch an immediate investigation into the mobile marketplace, focusing especially on practices that compromise user privacy. The two groups also called on the agency to “conduct a special investigation into mobile marketing privacy threats and inappropriate practices targeting children, adolescents, and multicultural consumers.” […]

    Online marketers are well aware of the power of the mobile platform, certainly. As a Google mobile project manager recently observed, the mobile phone is “the ultimate ad vehicle. It’s the first one ever in the history of the planet that people go to bed with. It’s ubiquitous across the world, across demographics, across age groups.… [I]t can know where you’ve been, where you’ve lingered, what store you stopped in, what car dealership you visited. It goes beyond any traditional advertising….” Left unchecked, such power can be abused, the FTC filing makes clear, which is why CDD and USPIRG are calling for immediate FTC action.

    “Policies governing consumer privacy on the mobile Web have failed to keep pace with these new marketing practices,” observed Ed Mierzwinski, director of consumer protection for USPIRG. “Most critically, as the user’s location has become part of the data collection and targeting process, the ‘mobile marketing ecosystem’–as the industry calls it–poses serious new threats to consumer privacy.”

    Here are a few previous blog posts on mobiles and privacy that may be of interest:

    Tracking Individuals Through Their Mobile Phones on a Times UK story about stores attempting to track their customers through their phones.

    The surveillance mechanism works by monitoring the signals produced by mobile handsets and then locating the phone by triangulation measuring the phone’s distance from three receivers.

    It has already been installed in two shopping centres, including Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, and three more centres will begin using it next month, Times Online has learnt.

    Wall Street Journal: Ad Firm Tracks Consumers Across Media. A media research company called Integrated Media Measurement (IMMI) has created software for mobile phones that would be able to record and identify every snippet of audio around you.

    IMMI embeds its software into the cellphones of the company’s 4,900 panelists. The software picks up audio from an ad or a TV show and converts it into its own digital code that is then uploaded into an IMMI database, which includes codes for media content such as TV shows, commercials, movies and songs.

    IMMI’s database then figures out what the cellphone was exposed to by matching the code. Cellphone conversations and background noise are filtered out by the software, IMMI says, since there is no “match” in the IMMI database.

    European Network & Information Security Agency Releases Paper on Security of Mobile Devices. ENISA is an independent agency that issues advice on technology and security issues to European Union governments and private industry. 

    However, as is the case with many new technologies, the pervasive use of mobile devices also brings new security and privacy risks. Persons who make extensive use of mobile devices continuously leave traces of their identities and transactions, sometimes even by just carrying the devices around in their pockets. Statistics show an increase in the theft of mobile device which nowadays store more and more personal information about their users.

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