Big Google is watching you

By Graeme Burton
13 Dec 2012 View Comments

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.

Further reading

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.

But when the new privacy policy was announced in January 2012 there was an outcry. French data protection agency CNIL wrote to Google expressing its concerns: “Our preliminary investigation shows that it is extremely difficult to know exactly which data is combined between which services for which purposes, even for trained privacy professionals,” it wrote.

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.

But it was only with the launch of Universal Analytics at the end of October 2012 that the purpose of Google’s privacy policy rewrite became clear. One of the key changes introduced with Universal Analytics is that now, analytics is based on users, rather than visits.

“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.

Yet rather than raising hackles in the mainstream press, as the change to the privacy policy had done, it was almost completely ignored outside of the specialist marketing press.

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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