Google shares our data on a surprising scale

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In addition to the Pixel phones, watches, and headphones at Google’s annual Software and Hardware Show last week, came a pair of stylish translation glasses. Put it on and real-time “subtitles” will appear on the lenses when you watch someone speaking in a different language. Very cool. But glasses are not commercially available. Nor are they likely to make the same amount of money as advertising for Alphabet Inc. Parent company Google, and of the company’s total revenue of $68 billion for the quarter ended March 31, 2022, about $54 billion came from advertising.

And the extent of our subconscious involvement in this endeavor is unparalleled at any other time in history.

Every time you open an app on your phone or surf the web, an eyeball auction takes place behind the scenes thanks to a thriving personal data market. It has always been difficult to quantify the size of this market, but a new report from the Irish Civil Liberties Council, which has campaigned vigorously for years in the US and Europe to limit the circulation of digital data, has now provided a number. The report, which the council shared with Bloomberg Opinion, says ad platforms transmit location data and browsing habits to 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 daily, across the two regions.

It is difficult for humans to visualize such numbers, although machines comfortably calculate them every day – but if the depletion of our personal data could be seen in the same way as pollution, we would be surrounded by an almost impenetrable and thickening haze like ours. interact with our phones. Another quantitative method: Through online activity and location, a person in the United States is exposed 747 times a day to bidding in real time, according to the data. The board claims that its anonymous source has exclusive access to an advertising campaign manager operated by Google. (The figure does not include personal data sent through Meta Platform Inc.’s Facebook or Amazon.com ad networks, which means the true measure of all data streamed is likely to be much larger.)

Why is all this important? The apps are often free and useful after all, and there are no obvious negative consequences to digital data mining.

Except there was. At least one major ad network has admitted passing user data to the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies to track cell phones without a court order, according to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal. Les mouvements précis des personnes qui utilisaient l’application de rencontres gay Grindr ont égallement été rendus publics pour acheter auprès d’une société de publicité de publicité mobile, jusqu’à ce que Grindr cesse de cesse de partager de les donse aéilées two years . But last year, Catholic publication The Pillar was still able to track a priest’s location on Grindr using “commercially available records” of data from the app, and watched him navigate between his office, his home, and several gay bars before publishing an article about “serial sexual misconduct” . It remains unclear how The Pillar obtained this information, but Grindr said at the time that an advertising partner may have been the source.

The risks are now greater with the prospect of a ban on abortion in the United States. What if prosecutors started using phone data to root out abortion advocates or even women order abortion pills online?

Sensitive data can be obtained thanks to the unruly and chaotic world of real-time bidding, a very 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 displays ads, their device shares data about that user to help deliver targeted ads. The advertiser with the highest bid for the available ad space wins.

The data can go to dozens or even hundreds of companies per auction. Google says it passes US user data to about 4,700 companies in total around the world. Each “stream” – as it’s known in the industry – typically shares data about a person’s location – including “hyper-local” targeting, according to Google’s own offering to advertisers – personal characteristics and habits to help advertising agencies build user profiles. The advertising industry also has a long label that networks use to label people, including sensitive labels such as “anxiety disorders” and “legal problems” or even “incest” and “support abuse,” according to one of those documents. A public document published by the Advertising Networks Consortium that sets industry standards.

The complex and ambiguous nature of the multi-billion dollar online advertising business makes it difficult to know exactly 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 Johnny Ryan, a senior researcher on the board that oversaw the compilation of the latest data. But he added that Google is also responsible for the largest share of the data flow.

The sheer volume of data released every day is not a fun fact: it underscores the fact that we are 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 don’t know about. Last week, a deputy reported that the San Francisco Police Department had requested footage from Cruz, which is owned by General Motors, a self-driving car company, to help with investigations. The SFPD denied wanting to use the footage for ongoing surveillance.

Despite this, the more data dissemination means more abuse risks. Even when the purpose is as innocuous as advertising, ambient computing runs the risk of becoming ambient surveillance.

More from this writer and others at Bloomberg Opinion:

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

Davos Collection Reborn in Crypto Metavers: Lionel Laurent

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

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LB and its owners.

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

More stories like these are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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