Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking

When Google bought the advertising network DoubleClick in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the company’s “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”

And, for nearly a decade, Google did in fact keep DoubleClick’s massive database of web-browsing records separate by default from the names and other personally identifiable information Google has collected from Gmail and its other login accounts.

But this summer, Google quietly erased that last privacy line in the sand – literally crossing out the lines in its privacy policy that promised to keep the two pots of data separate by default. In its place, Google substituted new language that says browsing habits “may be” combined with what the company learns from the use Gmail and other tools.

The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.

The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on the keywords they used in their Gmail. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.

The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous. In recent years, Facebook, offline data brokers and others have increasingly sought to combine their troves of web tracking data with people’s real names. But until this summer, Google held the line.

“The fact that DoubleClick data wasn’t being regularly connected to personally identifiable information was a really significant last stand,” said Paul Ohm, faculty director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law.

“It was a border wall between being watched everywhere and maintaining a tiny semblance of privacy,” he said. “That wall has just fallen.”

Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville emailed a statement describing Google’s change in privacy policy as an update to adjust to the “smartphone revolution”

“We updated our ads system, and the associated user controls, to match the way people use Google today: across many different devices,” Faville wrote. She added that the change “is 100% optional–if users do not opt-in to these changes, their Google experience will remain unchanged.” (Read Google’s entire statement.)

Existing Google users were prompted to opt-into the new tracking this summer through a request with titles such as “Some new features for your Google account.”

The “new features” received little scrutiny at the time. Wired wrote that it “gives you more granular control over how ads work across devices.” In a personal tech column, the New York Times also described the change as “new controls for the types of advertisements you see around the web.”

Connecting web browsing habits to personally identifiable information has long been controversial.

Privacy advocates raised a ruckus in 1999 when DoubleClick purchased a data broker that assembled people’s names, addresses and offline interests. The merger could have allowed DoubleClick to combine its web browsing information with people’s names. After an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, DoubleClick sold the broker at a loss.

In response to the controversy, the nascent online advertising industry formed the Network Advertising Initiative in 2000 to establish ethical codes. The industry promised to provide consumers with notice when their data was being collected, and options to opt out.

Most online ad tracking remained essentially anonymous for some time after that. When Google bought DoubleClick in 2007, for instance, the company’s privacy policy stated: “DoubleClick’s ad-serving technology will be targeted based only on the non-personally-identifiable information.”

In 2012, Google changed its privacy policy to allow it to share data about users between different Google services – such as Gmail and search. But it kept data from DoubleClick – whose tracking technology is enabled on half of the top 1 million websites – separate.

But the era of social networking has ushered in a new wave of identifiable tracking, in which services such as Facebook and Twitter have been able to track logged-in users when they shared an item from another website.

Two years ago, Facebook announced that it would track its users by name across the Internet when they visit websites containing Facebook buttons such as “Share” and “Like” – even when users don’t click on the button. (Here’s how you can opt out of the targeted ads generated by that tracking).

Offline data brokers also started to merge their mailing lists with online shoppers. “The marriage of online and offline is the ad targeting of the last 10 years on steroids,” said Scott Howe, chief executive of broker firm Acxiom.

To opt-out of Google’s identified tracking, visit the Activity controls on Google’s My Account page, and uncheck the box next to “Include Chrome browsing history and activity from websites and apps that use Google services.” You can also delete past activity from your account.

N.C.A.A. Moves Championship Games Out of North Carolina Over Anti-Trans Law

The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced on Monday that it is relocating all seven previously awarded championship events out of North Carolina during the 2016-17 academic year due to concerns over House Bill 2, the state’s anti-trans bathroom bill passed by republican legislators that it says violates the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The association says the decision by its board of governors is based on “the cumulative actions taken by the state concerning civil rights protections” that conflicted with the N.C.A.A’s commitment to “fairness and inclusion.”

“Fairness is about more than the opportunity to participate in college sports, or even compete for championships,” Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, said in a statement. “We believe in providing a safe and respectful environment at our events and are committed to providing the best experience possible for college athletes, fans and everyone taking part in our championships.”

Today’s move by the N.C.A.A. comes just 5 months after the association’s board of governors approved a new anti-discrimination process for championship bids – a move largely championed by LGBT sports civil rights group, Athlete Ally. It also comes less than two months after the National Basketball Association announced that it has decided to move next February’s All-Star Game from Charlotte as a protest over HB2.

“The NCAA’s decision to move their championship games out of North Carolina is groundbreaking and sets an example for every other sporting body to follow.  If athletic communities believe in the principles of respect and equal treatment for their LGBT fans, athletes and administrators, then championship events should only be awarded to those states and cities that reflect those values.” said Hudson Taylor, Executive Director of Athlete Ally.

Sports associations are not alone in their disgust over the states bathroom bill, a number of music performers and entertainers have canceled shows in the state, including Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr and Itzhak Perlman. Businesses have also been vocal about their opposition to HB2. Earlier this spring, PayPal scrapped a plan to build a new operations facility in Charlotte. Apple, among other large tech firms such as Facebook and Google have also spoken out in opposition the the new law.

President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shizo Abe greet Ciara and Russell Wilson prior to the State Dinner on August 28, 2015. Photo: Pete Souza / The White House

Popular musician, Ciara and famed football player Russell Wilson announced last month that they decided to move their wedding out of North Carolina over the anti-trans bathroom bill.

The N.C.A.A. said on Monday that the situation in North Carolina is unique in that the laws passed there bar transgender people from using public restrooms that correspond to their gender identity and allow government officials to refuse to provide services to LGBT people.

The N.C.A.A. also criticized the part of North Carolina’s House Bill 2 that forbids local municipalities from passing their own anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Five states and a number of cities have passed laws that bar public employees and representatives of public institutions from traveling to North Carolina, which the sports association said could be interpreted to include student athletes and university athletics staff members.

The following N.C.A.A. events are being moved from North Carolina:

2016 Division I women’s soccer championship, College Cup (Cary), Dec. 2 and 4.

2016 Division III men’s and women’s soccer championships (Greensboro), Dec. 2 and 3.

2017 Division I men’s basketball championship, first and second rounds (Greensboro), March 17 and 19.

2017 Division I women’s golf championships, regional (Greenville), May 8 to 10.

2017 Division III men’s and women’s tennis championships (Cary), May 22 to 27.

2017 Division I women’s lacrosse championship (Cary), May 26 and 28.

2017 Division II baseball championship (Cary), May 27 to June 3.