Privacy groups complain to FTC over Google’s 'deceptive' policy change

The complaint alleges that Google changed its policy in June to combine personal and browsing data

Privacy groups have complained to the Federal Trade Commission that Google is encroaching on user privacy through a policy change in June that allows it to combine personally-identifiable information with browsing data collected by its DoubleClick digital advertising service.

The complaint by Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearing House alleged that Google has created “super-profiles” as it can track user activity on Android mobile phones, with an 88 percent market share of smartphones worldwide, "and from any website that uses Google Analytics, hosts YouTube videos, or displays ads served by DoubleClick or AdSense."

The combination of data is in contrast to Google's pledges not to combine users’ personally-identifiable information with DoubleClick’s browsing data when acquiring the ad serving service in 2008, according to the complaint filed Thursday but made public on Monday. In October this year, ProPublica reported that Google "quietly erased that last privacy line in the sand” by its policy change in June that allowed the DoubleClick database of web browsing records to be combined with personal user data.

On June 28, Google users were informed of some new optional features introduced for their account that would give them more control over the data the company collects and how it’s used, while allowing the search giant to show more relevant ads. As part of the changes, Google struck out the language in its privacy policy stating that it would “not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent,” according to the complaint. Existing users were presumably given the chance to opt out,  but for new users the combination of personal and browsing data was done by default, it added.

An investigation by the FTC would add to a number of disputes the company has had with the FTC on privacy issues, including a US$22.5 million settlement with the FTC in 2012 on charges that it misrepresented to users of Apple’s Safari browser that it would not place tracking cookies or serve targeted ads to those users. That action violated an earlier privacy settlement between the company and the FTC.

In 2012, Google introduced a new and controversial privacy policy that stated that when users are signed in, the company may combine their information across services used.

“Google is a serial offender, and the action that the FTC has taken to date has done nothing to slow Google’s intrusive violations of its users’ privacy,” according to the groups.

Google could not be immediately reached for comment.

Describing the June move as highly deceptive, the groups said the announcement “intentionally misled users,” who had no way to figure from the wording that Google was in fact asking users for permission to link their personal information to data reflecting their behavior on as many as 80 percent of the Internet’s leading websites.

The groups have asked the FTC to investigate the changes to Google’s data collection policies as a result of the June policy shift, stop the combination of data from DoubleClick without proper user consent, and order the company to return advertising revenues obtained as a result of combining data gathered from DoubleClick with that gathered from its other services.

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