Report: Consumers Still Don’t Understand that Google Is Always Watching Them

Leon Neal/Getty Images
Leon Neal/Getty Images
LUCAS NOLAN

According to recent industry research, a large number of Google users do not expect the site to track their activities, locations and browsing history on other platforms — all of which Google does on a regular basis.

An investigation by the Nieman Lab has found that many users do not expect Google to track their actions and movements, something which the tech giant has been known to do for some time. This presents a serious question: is Google failing to meet users expectations around consumer privacy?

Companies such as Google and Facebook have been at the center of a number of user data scandals in recent years, the most notable being Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal which appeared to shock most of the public after the personal details of 87 million users was left vulnerable. Nieman Labs reports that the Cambridge Analytica scandal was not, however, an isolated incident:

Cambridge Analytica was by no means an isolated case. Last summer, an AP investigation found that Google’s location tracking remains on even if you turn it off in Google Maps, Search, and other apps. Research from Vanderbilt professor Douglas Schmidt found that Google engages in “passive” data collection, often without the user’s knowledge. His research also showed that Google utilizes data collected from other sources to de-anonymize existing user data.

That’s why we at Digital Content Next, the trade association of online publishers I lead, wrote this Washington Post op-ed, “It isn’t just about Facebook, it’s about Google, too” when Facebook first faced Capitol Hill. It’s also why the descriptor surveillance advertising is increasingly being used to describe Google and Facebook’s advertising businesses, which use personal data to tailor and micro-target ads.

Nieman Labs conducted its own investigation to attempt to understand the expectations the average consumer had of Google and how much the site tracks their activity and personal details. The findings were quite surprising, with many consumers expecting Google not to monitor data that Google has been collecting for a significant amount of time:

Our findings show that many of Google’s data practices deviate from consumer expectations. We find it even more significant that consumer’s expectations are at an all-time low even after 2018, a year in which awareness around consumer privacy reached peak heights.

The results of the study are consistent with our Facebook study: People don’t want surveillance advertising. A majority of consumers indicated they don’t expect to be tracked across Google’s services, let alone be tracked across the web in order to make ads more targeted.

Nearly two out of three consumers don’t expect Google to track them across non-Google apps, offline activities from data brokers, or via their location history.

There was only one question where a small majority of respondents felt that Google was acting according to their expectations. That was about Google merging data from search queries with other data it collects on its own services. They also don’t expect Google to connect the data back to the user’s personal account, but only by a small majority. Google began doing both of these in 2016 after previously promising it wouldn’t.

Most people appear to expect Google to collect some data about them in order to better personalize products such as Google Search but Google’s continued tracking of users across multiple platforms appears to bother many consumers:

Google’s personal data collection practices affect the more than 2 billion people who use devices running their Android operating software and hundreds of millions more iPhone users who rely on Google for browsing, maps, or search. Most of them expect Google to collect some data about them in exchange for use of services.

However, as our research shows, a significant majority of consumers do not expect Google to track their activities across their lives, their locations, on other sites, and on other platforms. And as the AP discovered, Google continues to do some of this even after consumers explicitly turn off tracking. With new laws in Europe and California and with federal discussions about how to bring similar protections to the rest of America, it’s critical to understand what consumers actually demand, align expectations to those demands, and rebuild trust in our industry. Consumers expect nothing less.

Read the full report from the Nieman Lab here.

Lucas Nolan is a reporter for Breitbart News covering issues of free speech and online censorship. Follow him on Twitter @LucasNolan or email him at lnolan@breitbart.com

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