Google Now Combining Browsing Data With Personally Identifiable Info

A policy change eliminates a provision that Google would not combine data from the DoubleClick database with personally identifiable information gathered from Gmail and other Google accounts.

Google privacy

Google has dropped its long-standing policy of keeping data about people's internet browsing habits separate from personally identifiable information about them obtained from Gmail and other Google log-in accounts.

The change was implemented this summer and is enabled by default for new Google accounts, the nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica said in a report released last week.

People with existing Google accounts were prompted to opt in to the tracking via requests with titles like "Some new features for your Google account," ProPublica said.

"The 'new features' received little scrutiny at the time," ProPublica's Julia Angwin wrote in the report. She pointed to multiple reports in the media in summer that tended to describe the change more as giving users better control over data on them collected by Google than as a privacy threat.

Google's new policy eliminates a provision that has existed since the company acquired ad services firm DoubleClick in 2007. DoubleClick tracks the online browsing habits of internet users and maintains one of the largest databases of consumer online behavior in the industry.

After Google acquired DoubleClick for more than $3 billion, the company announced that it would not combine data from the DoubleClick database with personally identifiable information (PII) gathered from Gmail and other Google accounts. The company abided by that promise until earlier this year, when it literally struck through the provision to keep DoubleClick data separate from personal data, ProPublica said.

In its place, Google put in new language announcing that going forward data about a user's browsing habits may be combined with personal information. The company positioned the change as giving it a way to deliver more personalized services and ads to users based on their internet browsing habits.

"The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on … name and other information Google knows about you," Angwin said.

It gives Google a way to build a comprehensive profile of individuals along with their names based on the search they conduct on Google, the sites they visit, the ads they click on and other online behavior. The change marks a major shift in direction for Google and further erodes privacy for internet users, the ProPublica report noted.

In comments to ProPublica, a company spokeswoman ascribed Google's new stance to the smartphone revolution. The manner in which people apparently access and use Google today from multiple devices necessitated a change in privacy policies, ProPublica quoted the spokeswoman as saying in a statement.

The statement, which ProPublica posted in its entirety, goes on to note that Google gave users ample and clear notice of the policy change in addition to new tools for controlling or deleting the data Google has on them.

In response to a request for comment from eWEEK, a Google spokeswoman downplayed the ProPublica report and said the changes mentioned in it had been previously announced and covered widely in the media, including in eWEEK.

The tracking is only done when users opt in to it. Nothing will change for users who choose not to opt in, the statement said. "These changes are opt-in—if users do not enable these, their experience will not change," she said.

Users can opt out of the tracking by visiting the Activity controls page for their Google account and unchecking the box next to the option asking for permission to include Chrome browsing history and activity with applications that use Google services, ProPublica said in its report.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.