You know Google tracks your online activities; did you know it also collects information about what you do offline? The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has complained to the FTC about Google tracking in-store purchases and connecting that data to online actions.
Neither online nor offline tracking is particularly novel. Companies have long monitored every swipe of your debit or credit card to better understand your shopping habits. (Remember that Target was able to predict that a teenage girl was pregnant before she even told her parents.) They're able to collect even more information online--companies like Google know the sites you visit, the ads you click on, and the things you talk about via email. The problem arises when online and offline tracking is combined to create a holistic view of pretty much everything you do.
According to EPIC, that's exactly what Google's doing with this purchase data. The rights group explained in its complaint:
Google has collected billions of credit card transactions, containing personal customer information, from credit card companies, data brokers, and others and has linked those records with the activities of Internet users, including product searches and location searches. This data reveals sensitive information about consumer purchases, health, and private lives. According to Google, it can track about 70% of credit and debit card transactions in the United States.
EPIC said it's even more troubling that Google hasn't revealed how it "deidentifies" consumers when it tracks their purchases. This undermines the company's claim that it can use both online and offline data without harming someone's privacy. If third parties can't verify that Google isn't misusing personal information--which would require the company to reveal how its algorithms work--then the only way to protect consumer privacy, the thinking goes, is to involve government regulators. That's why the rights group decided to lodge this complaint with the FTC. EPIC said in the filing:
Google’s reliance on a secret, proprietary algorithm for assurances of consumer privacy, Google’s collection of massive numbers of credit card records through unidentified 'third-party partnerships,' and Google’s use of an opaque and misleading 'opt-out' mechanism are unfair and deceptive trade practices subject to investigation and injunction by the FTC.
EPIC said in a blog post that it wants the FTC to "stop Google's tracking of in-store purchases and determine whether Google adequately protects consumer privacy." Now the ball is in the FTC's court, and we'll have to see how the commission decides to respond to these latest allegations against the world's leading search engine provider.