Google Ads Flouting Privacy Laws According to Privacy Commissioner

Canada’s interim privacy commissioner has found that Mountain View, California’s Google Inc. has violated the country’s privacy laws in regards to the types of information the search-engine giant can track and store.

While using tracking cookies to store user information and search results, and even using that information to deliver targeted ads is not illegal, storing sensitive personal information is. In fact, Google’s own privacy policy states that information related to a person’s race, religion, health, and sexual orientation, among other things, will not be used to deliver targeted ads.

Yet an investigation by Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner found that Google was doing just that. In one particular instance during the investigation, the company was found to have stored a tracking cookie related to one man’s visits to websites that gave information on CPAP machines, devices commonly used to manage sleep apnea. That man was later targeted with ads for similar devices when visiting unrelated sites that used Google’s Ads service.

Google, advertisers doing damage control

Google quickly announced that it would take steps to halt the privacy-intrusive ads, which will include better training of staff to spot privacy policy violations and better monitoring of ad campaigns.

“We are pleased Google is acting to address this problem. Most Canadians consider health information to be extremely sensitive. It is inappropriate for this type of information to be used in online behavioral advertising,” Canada’s interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier said in a statement.

Advertisers scrambled to ease public concerns in the wake of the Privacy Office’s investigation, re-affirming their commitment to protecting sensitive information. Canada’s two major advertising groups formed the Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada in September 2013, an initiative that imposes further guidelines on members. The guidelines include disallowing use of personal medical information to create tailored ads.

Latest in ongoing series of privacy snafus

The incident is just the latest privacy scandal for Google, which has faced criticism over everything from its Street View vehicles collecting wireless network information during their travels to the fact that users’ personal emails within Google’s Gmail service are scanned to deliver targeted ads based on email contents.

Google is also the subject of several lawsuits currently before the courts, including one case in Britain alleging that the company bypassed settings in Apple’s Safari browser, allowing Google to track users and deliver personalized ads. Google recently tried to have that lawsuit thrown out, claiming that because the company is headquartered in the U.S, it isn’t subject to British laws. However, that defense was dismissed and the lawsuit is set to proceed.

Despite Google’s wealth, attorneys have shown they won’t back down from battling from the Internet giant over perceived injustices, online and off. The company’s reach can make it vulnerable to litigation from law firms that handle class-action suits.

How to prevent online tracking

If you’re concerned about online tracking, you can take steps to control what information browsers, search engines, and websites are able to store on your.

Firefox users can go into the options settings, navigate to “privacy”, and under tracking options choose the option “I do not want to be tracked”. You can also change your settings under “history” so that Firefox does not store information related to your searches or browsing history.

For Internet Explorer users, go to “Tools”, “Options”, and “Privacy”, and uncheck the box that says “Accept Cookies from Sites”.

Note that disabling cookies may prevent the full functioning of some websites, which require knowing whether you are logged in to access certain features. Alternatively, you can allow cookies to avoid that, while setting them to be deleted from your browser after each session.

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Osho is Tech blogger. He contributes to the Blogging, Gadgets, Social Media and Tech News section on TecheHow.