Google, Personal Information, and Star Trek

Rarely does a day go by when I don’t get an email from some outraged soul who has seen on some wacky site — or perhaps heard on a right-wing radio program somewhere — the lie that Google sells users’ personal information to advertisers. I got a phone call from one such person very recently — an individual who hardly would calm down enough for me to explain that they’d been bamboozled by the Google Haters.

‘Cause Google doesn’t sell your data. Not to advertisers, not to anyone else. But the falsehood that they do so is one of the most enduring of fabrications about Google.

To be sure, Google is partly responsible for the long life of this legend, because frankly they’ve never done a really good job of explaining for non-techies how the Google ad system works, and Google ad relevance is often so accurate that users naturally assume (again, falsely) that their browsing habits or other data were handed over to third parties.

Here’s what actually happens. Let’s say that you work in warp engine design and testing. So you’re frequently using Google to search for stuff like antimatter injectors and dilithium crystals.

Now you start seeing “top of page” search results ads from some mining operation on Rigel XII for exactly the raw crystals that you need, and at an attractive price with free shipping, too! (Yes Trekkies, I realize that in this early episode they were actually referred to as “lithium” crystals — go tell it to Spock.)

But you wonder: Did Google provide my search history to those ragtag and somewhat disreputable bachelor miners — out there on a planet that is so windy that you clean pots by hanging them out to be sandblasted?

How else could that ad have been targeted to me?

The answer is simple, and you don’t need a dose of Venus Drug to understand it. (OK, happy now, Trekkies?)

The miners create an ad that is aimed at users who are looking for warp drive paraphernalia, based on the logical keywords — like dilithium, for example.

When Google’s ad personalization algorithms detect that your search terms are relevant to that ad, Google displays it to you. The miners back on┬áRigel XII don’t even know that you exist at this point. They didn’t display the ad to you, Google did.

Now, if you proceed to click on their ad and visit the miners’ sale site, you’ll be providing more information to them, much as you would when visiting other sites around the Web.

But if you don’t click on the ad, there’s no connection between you and the advertiser.

And you don’t have to simply accept Google’s default handling of ad personalization. Over at:

you can change Google ad personalization settings or even disable ad personalization entirely.

So the next time that someone tries to fervently sell you the big lie that Google is selling your personal data, tell them that they’re wrong and that they’re a stick in the Mudd.

Be seeing you.