Imagine that you are the creator of a useful tool that you think will help society. You spend endless nights perfecting the design, favoring your creative brain over your social obligations, developing a deep relationship with your work, and just maybe not recognizing the person in the mirror with bags under their eyes. You care. Your end product provokes a positive response from your friends and family and you decide to take it further and let more people know it. Beyond the use of word of mouth, how do you get the word out about it? You advertise.
Advertising is a medium that allows buyers and sellers to find each other.
One highly beneficial advertising service is Google Ads, popular because it gives a better result than similar alternatives. This is due to how it capitalizes on its resources, its main resource being its volume of users and the information they provide.
Going back to the example of you, whoever you are, making a product and getting it out to others, the next step you might want to take is get feedback about current and potential users, so you can find the ones that are most likely to want to use your product. You could advertise to many people and allow those interested to self-select themselves, or you could make the process more efficient by only reaching those who are likely to be interested. The only way you can do the latter is to know what their interests are.
How do you know what someone is interested in? The most ethical way to find that out, is to simply ask. However, people’s stated and actual desires can vary by a great margin, and so a more accurate solution is to have them tell you without consciously telling you.
This is what Google, Facebook and many advertising services currently do. They allow you to get this information by selling user information that can categorize people based on relevant data. They collect information that says enough about people’s values or desires to know what they might want to literally or figuratively buy. This current scenario has been happening for a long time and is already something that many people have an issue with. But they are not willing to give up convenience to solve the problem. They hope to have the benefits and convenience while having their information protected. In fact, some people don’t mind at all.
But, it gets a bit more sinister, because Google decided to up its game by bridging user information from the offline and the online world. They first tried this by offering a service called Google Wallet, as a new service to be added to the Google ecosystem. Because that didn’t give them the information volume they wanted, they then turned to credit and debit card companies. Google already offers a service called “Store Sales Measurement” that gives insight into customer conversion offline based on online ads. Since 2017, they claim that companies can “measure store sales by taking advantage of Google’s third-party partnerships, which capture approximately 70% of credit and debit card transactions in the United States”. They also state that companies can “match transactions back to Google ads in a secure and privacy-safe way, and only report on aggregated and anonymized store sales to protect your customer data”
Something new was reported by Bloomberg at the end of August 2018, with additional information coming from corporation contacts with Slate. Google reportedly finalized a 4 year deal with MasterCard to update its offline conversion tracking. In Google’s words:
“Before we launched this beta product last year, we built a new, double-blind encryption technology that prevents both Google and our partners from viewing our respective users’ personally identifiable information. We do not have access to any personal information from our partners’ credit and debit cards, nor do we share any personal information with our partners. Google users can opt-out with their Web and App Activity controls, at any time.”
In Mastercard’s words:
“Regarding the [Bloomberg] article you cited, I’d quickly note that the premise of what was reported is false. The way our network operates, we do not know the individual items that a consumer purchases in any shopping card — physical or digital. No individual transactions or personal data is provided. That delivers on the expectation of privacy from both consumers and merchants around he world. In processing a transaction, we see the retailers name and the total amount of the consumer’s purchase, but not specific items.”
And according to the head of the Future of Privacy forum, Jules Polonetsky, who was briefed by Google, they are using a novel encryption method that eliminates privacy risk. He stated that: “They’re sharing data that has been so transformed that, if put in the public, no party could do anything with it.”
It was important for me to carefully begin this story from the perspective of the advertiser. That could be you one day. We could never have all the material items in our lives if someone didn’t take the time to make them, and someone didn’t take the time to share them, whatever the competitive or coercive nature of the business world. However, we do not have to sacrifice all privacy in order to leverage technology that benefits both users and creators. And we can build that quality into the technology we use rather than rely on other individuals’ personal ethics. Google claims to be protecting user identity with a “new” encryption method that no one but Google knows about, when a primary rule of encryption standards is that they must be public for them to be proven secure. Google’s claims must also be taken within the context of prior claims such as one that explicitly claimed to not track users that was later rescinded after outside investigation.
What is absolutely amazing is that these companies make deals of this nature in privacy, without full transparency. Both companies are employing a right for their corporations that they deny their users: privacy. But users may be unaware of the coming alternatives that offer practical, verifiable, and useful services, without the total loss of personal data. We now have the power to leverage technologies that help us live our day to day lives, without relying on centralized institutions to provide them to us. We can do that through the use of blockchain technology. And this article is a reminder of that.
Since Google launched its offline tracking using credit and debit card data in 2017, it has been more than a year. They are only upping the ante. One has to ask, are we like the proverbial frog in boiling water?
Hi, my name is Desi-Rae. This article is part of an ongoing series on privacy that I’m doing as part of my work with Particl, a crypto-based privacy platform that is creating its first dAPP, a marketplace. You can find out more about Particl, here. All opinions are my own.