Google shares our data on a surprising scale

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Along with the Pixel phones, watches and headphones at Google’s annual software and devices showcase last week, a pair of nifty translation glasses were showcased. Put them on and real-time “captions” appear on the lenses as you watch someone speak in a different language. Very cool. But the glasses are not commercially available. They’re also unlikely to make as much money as advertising for Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. Of the company’s $68 billion in total revenue for the quarter ending March 31, 2022, about 54 billions of dollars came from advertising.

The scope of our own unconscious involvement in this endeavor is also unmatched at any other time in history.

Every time you open an app on your phone or browse the web, an auction for your eyeballs is going on behind the scenes thanks to a thriving market for personal data. The size of this market has always been difficult to pinpoint, but a new report from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, which has campaigned aggressively for years in the United States and Europe to impose limits on digital data commerce, has now put an end to appear there. The report, which the council shared with Bloomberg Opinion, says ad platforms transmit location data and browsing habits of Americans and Europeans about 178 trillion times a year. According to the report, Google transmits the same type of data more than 70 billion times per day, across both regions.

It’s hard for humans to conceptualize such numbers, even though machines comfortably calculate them every day – but if the depletion of our personal data could be seen in the same way as pollution, we’d be shrouded in a haze almost impenetrable that thickens over time. the more we interact with our phones. Quantified another way: In terms of online activity and location, a person in the United States is exposed 747 times a day to real-time auctions, according to the data. The council says its unnamed source has special access to a manager of a Google-run advertising campaign. (The figure does not include personal data transmitted by Meta Platform Inc. or Inc.’s Facebook ad networks, meaning the true measure of all outreach data is likely much larger.)

Why is all this important? Apps are mostly free and useful after all, and there are no obvious negative consequences to being digitally mined for data.

Except there were. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, at least one major ad network has admitted to passing user data to the Department of Homeland Security and other government entities to track cellphones without a warrant. The precise movements of people who used gay dating app Grindr were also made public to be bought from a mobile advertising company, until Grindr stopped sharing location data with ad networks a year ago. two years old. But last year, Catholic news publication The Pillar was still able to locate a priest on Grindr using “commercially available records” of the app’s data, and watched him travel between his office. , his home, and various gay bars before posting a story of his “serial sexual misconduct.” It’s still unclear how The Pillar got this information, but Grindr said at the time that an advertising partner may have been the source.

The stakes are now higher with the prospect of a blanket ban on abortion in the United States. What if state prosecutors start using phone data to stamp out abortion advocates or even women ordering abortion pills online?

Capturing sensitive data is possible thanks to the wild and messy world of real-time bidding, a hugely popular approach to digital advertising and part of the lifeblood of companies like Google and Facebook. Here’s how it works: Every time a smartphone user opens an app or website that shows ads, their device shares data about that user to show them a targeted ad. The advertiser with the highest bid for available ad space wins.

Data can go to tens or even hundreds of companies for each auction. Google says it passes US user data to about 4,700 companies in total around the world. Each “stream” – as they’re known in the industry – typically shares data about a person’s location – including “hyperlocal” targeting, according to Google’s pitch to advertisers – personal characteristics and browsing habits. navigation to help advertising agencies create user profiles. The ad industry also has a long taxonomy that the networks use to categorize people, including sensitive labels like “anxiety disorders” and “legal issues,” or even “incest” and “abuse support,” according to one. public document published by the ad network consortium that sets standards for the industry.

The complex and obscure nature of the multi-billion dollar online advertising business makes it difficult to know precisely what data Google is sharing about us. For what it’s worth, Google tends to release less personal data about people than other smaller ad networks, according to Jonny Ryan, a senior researcher at the council who oversaw the compilation of the latest data. But Google also accounts for the largest share of streaming data, he added.

The sheer size of the data released every day is no fun fact: it underscores the reality that we’re surrounded by devices that collect information, ostensibly to improve our lives, but then sell it to the highest bidder. Smart speakers, fitness trackers and augmented reality glasses are just a few examples of the growing trend of ambient computing. The data collected by these devices may be used in ways that we do not know about. Last week, Vice reported that the San Francisco Police Department had been looking for footage of Cruise, owned by General Motors Co., a self-driving car company, to help find investigative leads. The SFPD denied wanting to use the footage for ongoing surveillance.

Even so, more data dissemination means more potential for abuse. Even when the purpose is as innocuous as advertising, ambient computing risks becoming ambient surveillance.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

Too much AI may not be good for your health or for the NHS: Parmy Olson

Whole Davos is reborn in the crypto metaverse: Lionel Laurent

Chinese tech companies get a reprieve, not a pardon: Tim Culpan

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former journalist for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is the author of “We Are Anonymous”.

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