Privacy Rights Group Wants FTC to Probe Google Tracking Algorithm

A privacy rights groups wants the Federal Trade Commission to force Google to reveal details of consumer tracking algorithms used in connection with company's Store Sales Measurement program.

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The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate a Google advertising program that it says links an individual's in-store purchases with their online activity.

In a complaint filed with the FTC, the Washington D.C.-based EPIC accused Google of collecting personal information from billions of credit and debit card transactions and then tying that data to the product and location searches conducted by Internet users.

"Google claims that it can preserve consumer privacy while correlating advertising impressions with store purchases," EPIC said in its complaint. But Google has so far refused to reveal, or allow independent testing of, the controls it has in place to protect consumer privacy while it does such correlation.

"The privacy of millions of consumers thus depends on a secret, proprietary algorithm," EPIC said. While Google claims that consumers can opt out easily from such tracking, the reality is that the opting out process is opaque, burdensome and misleading, the non-profit said.

In an emailed statement to eWEEK, a Google expressed disappointment over what it claimed were several inaccuracies in EPIC's portrayal of Google's Store Sales Measurement program. "We invested in building industry-leading privacy protections before launching this solution," the statement said.

All payment card data that Google collects is encrypted and aggregated. The company does not receive or share any identifiable card information, Google claimed. In addition, Google only uses data that users have agreed to can be linked with their Internet activity, the company claimed. "We are committed to constantly innovating and continuing to provide transparency to users on what data we collect and how we use it.”

Google began rolling out its store sales measurement initiative earlier this year as part of an effort to help advertisers determine how effective their online ad campaigns are, in driving sales. Google has described the program as helping advertisers measure in-store revenue and the store visits delivered by their ad campaigns on Google's search and shopping properties.

The company has claimed that it currently can capture information on a staggering 70 percent of all credit and debit card transactions in the US, which businesses can use to measure ad campaign effectiveness.

Google says that it does not collect any information on what an individual might have actually purchased or how much they might have spent in a transaction. Google only learns of the aggregate value over multiple transactions, according to the company.

For example, for an ad campaign with 10,000 clicks Google might only learn that 12 percent of those who clicked on the ads then went on to make a purchase. Google does not know or provide advertisers with any information on which users might have clicked on an ad or made an offline purchase.

The credit and debit card data that Google collects via a network of third parties is also anonymized and can in no way be linked to specific individuals, the company has claimed.

All the data that Google receives is encrypted so the company can't read it.  The only thing that Google does with in-store purchase information, according to the company, is to use it to create anonymous and aggregate measures that highlight the impact of online advertising on store sales.

However, in its complaint, EPIC accused Google of not being transparent about the algorithms it uses to track and tie in-store behavior with online activities. The company has also not been forthcoming about the identities of the third parties from whom it collects payment card transaction data. EPIC claimed that Google's habit of tracking users with a secret algorithm and its failure to identify the third parties it is working with, constitute unfair trade practices.

It wants the FTC to investigate Google's tracking algorithm, compel Google to reveal the identities of the third parties and force it to make opting out easier for consumers.

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.