Privacy group files complaint to stop Google’s new consumer-tracking program

A privacy rights group filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission to stop a new Google program that tracks consumer behavior even when they are not shopping online.

The Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center complained Google’s “Store Sales Measurement” program had many issues from its secret algorithms that supposedly kept consumer information private, its mass data collection through “third-party partnerships,” and an opaque “opt-out” process that left consumers no clear way to avoid being tracked.

“EPIC’s complaint asks the FTC to stop Google’s tracking of in-store purchases and determine whether Google adequately protects consumer privacy,” writes the organization. “EPIC’s recent complaint against Google notes that the company is seeking to extend its dominance of online advertising to the physical world.”

Through its “Store Sales Measurement,” which was announced in May, Google is able to collect billions of debit and credit-card transactions every day, regardless of whether the transaction was made online or in a brick-and-mortar store. With partnerships with advertising clients, Google has access to 70 percent of all card transactions in the United States.

Using the program, Google will be able to determine exactly how many sales were generated by digital ad campaigns and allow advertisers to make better decisions.

Google uses machine learning to analyze the mass data and match it with the transactions made on Google-owned apps. Google ensured The Washington Post all data was anonymized through a custom-built encryption process and that it cannot access an individual’s debit or credit card information.

EPIC remained unconvinced of Google’s assurances, citing past cases of other firms’ proprietary encryption software that did not fully protect consumer privacy.

EPIC raised concerns about the data brokers in partnership with Google, saying they have been favorite hacker targets and provide little to no concern for privacy. EPIC says Google’s refusal to reveal its data brokers “endangers consumer privacy.”

For consumers who don’t want to be tracked by Google online, there is no respite, according to EPIC. Even if a consumer turns off Google’s “Web & App Activity” settings to stop explicit tracking, Google has other means, like cookies, to follow the user and his or her Internet history.

If the FTC decides to investigate, this won’t be the first time Google will be probed thanks to EPIC over advertising privacy. In 2010, EPIC filed a FTC complaint regarding Google Buzz, a then-new social networking service linked to Gmail. Buzz opened Gmail user’s contacts and other personal information when people signed up and provided no meaningful opt-out process.

Google eventually settled with the FTC and discontinued Buzz in 2011.

Photo: Two men walk past a building on the Google campus in Mountain View on Nov. 12, 2015. (Jeff Chiu/AP)


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