Earlier this year, Google unveiled a new service for advertisers. Called Universal Analytics, it promised to reveal more information than ever before about web users and exactly what they were using the internet for.
The launch of Universal Analytics marked the culmination of a year-long plan by Google to consolidate the different privacy policies that had grown up around the company’s disparate services, so that the collection, storage and, ultimately, analysis of personal data could likewise be consolidated and unified.
It added: “CNIL and the EU data protection authorities are deeply concerned about the combination of personal data across services: they have strong doubts about the lawfulness and fairness of such processing, and about its compliance with European data protection legislation.”
CNIL was subsequently appointed to lead an EU investigation into Google’s personal data collection activities. In its defence, Google claimed that its aim was merely to streamline and simplify its privacy practices across all the online services it offered across the world and, regardless of the opposition, went ahead with its plan.
“We’re interested in user behaviour overall, not behaviour of disconnected visits or sessions. We do this by having an override ID on every device interacting with Google Analytics. Sure, there are issues, like we still need to identify people via a login or some other means, but once we can do so, we can now see specific users across devices very easily,” explains one analytics group, Lunametrics, in a blog post.
Cookies were also simplified, but data that was stored in those cookies now, instead, resides on Google’s servers, helping to unify the collection and storage of individuals’ private browsing data across different devices.
Feel the fear and do it anyway
The move by Google certainly reflected a great deal of chutzpah by the company. Universal Analytics had been launched just weeks after the European Union’s Article 29 Working Party - which overseas data protection issues - had reprimanded the company over its privacy policies, threatening action within months if Google refused to make changes.
And it added to the investigation that the EU was already conducting into whether the company had abused its monopoly in search to promote its own services over and above those of rivals.
“Google has the only relevant search engine in terms of market share, the world’s largest ad network (DoubleClick), and the world’s most widely-used web analytics service. All of this means that it has already cornered the market for personal data,” says Privacy International founder Simon Davies.
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A discussion of the "risk perception gap", its implications and how it can be closed