Big Brother may not be watching you(*), but Google certainly is

I’m not a fan of advertising. In general my view is that the best products should sell themselves; I have a nagging suspicion that any product that needs to be heavily advertised is probably either unnecessary or not as good as it’s competitors. It tends to make me look suspiciously at the product and wonder what they’re trying to hide behind all that advertising spend.

I find advertising on the internet even worse. Because it’s so (relatively) inexpensive to reach people on the internet there appears to be very little time put into making the majority of advertising interesting; most of the advertisers seem to have adopted a “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” approach, figuring that if they throw enough, something will eventually stick. As a result most people I know are all fairly jaded, and tend to just ignore them all.

To counter this, the advertisers are trying to tailor the adverts that you see so they they are more closely matched to your circumstances or interests, presenting them to you almost as a “service”. The idea is that if they can show you adverts that are more likely to be of interest to you, then you’re more likely to “click through” and possibly buy something. So if you’ve just had (or even better, are about to have) a baby, they’ll show you adverts trying to sell you nappies, baby foods, etc. The idea is that you’re less irritated (because the adverts are now supposed to be useful), and they can charge the product owners more for each of those adverts because they’re supposed to be more effective. According to the advertisers, everyone wins.

Except, to be able to target those adverts at us, the advertisers need to know a lot about each of us. They need to be able to work out what kind of adverts we might be interested in. So they have to gather that information. Lots of it. And Google is gathering a lot more information than I care to think about. It monitors everything most people search for. It knows which of the search results it gave you that you decided to click on. It often knows a lot about which websites you visit during your normal web-surfing because the owners of many of those websites use Googles advertising services to deliver targeted adverts to you too. And now, thanks to Android, which now has a 75% share of the world-wide smartphone market, it usually knows exactly where you are when you do almost anything with the “mobile internet”. It brings a whole new meaning to tracking your browsing habits.

I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this. For me, the straw that broke the camels back was Google wrapping their search results links in code that tracks you as you click on your choice of result. I’ve decided that I just don’t believe the platitudes from Googles execs about their famous motto of “Do no evil”. It’s just too easy for those people to redefine what they mean by “Evil”.

So I’m doing what I can to be a little less tracked. I now block all adverts, period. And although I still need to use Google, I’m doing my best to avoid letting them know much more than my search terms; I’m certainly not going to let them know which of their results I finally clicked on. It’s not much, but it’s a start towards keeping myself a bit further under the radar, in this increasingly Orwellian internet.

(*) Actually, Big Brother almost certainly is either watching you too, or getting Google to do it for them.

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7 thoughts on “Big Brother may not be watching you(*), but Google certainly is

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I do recognise the web has to be made to pay for many companies but the advertising model that seems to be developing around sneaky gathering of data isn’t something I like at all. Two things then, (1) either Adblock or Adblock Plus browser extension and possibly even better (2) disconnect.me, another extension specifically targeting these trackers.

    • I’m using Adblock Plus, Ghostery and Flash Block. I’ve also got Greasemonkey installed so I can run Google Tracking-B-Gone (http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/120330). The web is suddenly a tranquil, content-rich environment again. I like the look of Disconnect.me as a possible alternative to Ghostery; I need to do a quick comparison of features before making that decision I guess.

      • Another good point, I’ve never really tried Ghostery, just started using Disconnect.me because it was the more fashionable of the tracker blockers out there and getting lots of press. I might look into Ghostery too!

        • So I’m quite liking Ghostery in preference to disconnect.me, seems to have a wider coverage and easier to tell what’s going on.

          • I do like Ghostery, and don’t see much reason to change to disconnect.me yet, but I’ve not seen any Ghostery database updates for a while; if they don’t stay current that may force me to make the jump.

            I’ve also just added HTTPS Everywhere to the mix; I like the intent, but not sure how many problems it’s going to give me yet. Will post an update in a couple of days.

            The next question is whether I look into a VPN or TOR solution too. I could easily route all my network traffic through either, though I understand that TOR would involve a big performance hit. A good VPN might be worth the investment though; this article makes interesting reading. Looks like anywhere from about £25 to £100 a year; not yet sure whether the more expensive offerings give you much more. I’m also not completely sure whether the additional anonymity that would give me is worth the price; I need to think about that some more.

      • Another “thanks” for the pointer to Ghostery. I’m liking the mix of automation and control it gives. I previously mostly just used ABP (set up manually as I’m not a fan of blanket use of someone else’s blocklist), but the combination of Ghostery and ABP is looking very powerful.

  2. I’m very interested in security and do indulge in the paranoia of thinking that the world is out to get my by collecting my data and stealing my identity etc. I also hate adverts and will skip past them on tv recordings etc. However I do want to be told things that are of interest to me so I consciously select yes to all the apps and browsers that ask if they can track me. (maybe it’ll prove useful when they wrongly accuse me of a crime they can see that I wasn’t there). At the moment it’s not sophisticated enough. It’s embarrassing when I’m showing a work colleague a business website and an ad pops up for ladies underwear because I bought my wife some for Christmas, or annoying that I get Fireman Sam ads because my son liked it 5 years ago or because my kids share my tablet. Most often the ads are for things that I’ve just bought or are so duplicated that I don’t see anything else. It’s a little more scary now that I’ve moved to android. I spent many many hours telling lovefilm what films I liked and they still never recommended a suitable film, but I remain hopeful that putting myself out there will give me something useful back.

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