Just for a minute I want you to imagine that your identity cannot be described through your name or home address or email address or phone number or any bank cards. Imagine you can only be identified through some random numerical ID. Imagine everything you do on electronic devices as well as in physical world is being tracked and reported on. This includes what you purchase, where you travel every day, what content you read / watch, and whether you like or dislike specific things. Imagine that all your activities are tracked and related to activities of people you are connected with. Now imagine all this information being collected for 5, 10, or even more years. Although in theory you remain “anonymous”, this collection of information is far deeper and meaningful than your name or address or even your credit rating. Now, recognize this is the reality we currently live in. Let me explain how, why, and why this is NOT a conspiracy.
Let’s start with crushing a myth: Your identity is best recognized through your name. That’s totally false. There are probably many people that cary the same name. Your name can change. People often use variants of their names like nicknames. People sometimes report different names especially when they don’t want to be contacted. Your name is really just a string of characters. IDs on the other hand are unique per person, can persist, and are defined by systems so cannot be easily fooled.
Now let’s highlight just some of the activities that Google is currently able to track via single ID
- Everything you search for on Google (obviously)
- Websites you go to (especially if they show Google Ads or run Google Analytics)
- Content you consume (especially if you use Google reader)
- Places you go to (through your searches, Google Now and GPS)
- Restaurants you eat at like (through your searches, Google Now and GPS)
- Online transactions you make (especially if those sites have Google Ads or run Google Analytics)
- Physical transactions you make (if you use Google wallet or confirmations are sent to Gmail)
- Your personal points of view (by reading your blog posts, Tweets, etc.)
- People you know (through who you are connected to online)
- Details of your physical health (if you use these apps on your phone)
What you need to understand is that Google (and other companies) is not simply tracking your digital behaviour. They are also using technology to track your physical behaviour (mainly through mobile devices). It really doesn’t matter if Google can associate your activity with your name and address or even the bank card. It is of little consequence. The rest of the information is far more valuable and more clearly defines who you are… and therefore is a better predictor of what you will do.
Is this a violation of personal privacy? I’m afraid our understanding of privacy used for most laws is quite antiquated. Most people focus on protecting their legal identity, their personal information, and their financial information. Daily behaviour is often perceived as trivial. Google walks a thin line by tracking and understanding all the things we find trivial yet are a better predictor of our behaviour, and without associating the two sides (legal identity with tracked behaviour). Behavioural patterns have at this point no direct monetary value. Few wants to steal this big data. Yet many people want to understand it and use it to change consumer behaviour.
The Why Not
This is NOT a conspiracy. This is simply how we are evolving. We now have the technology to capture all our activities to identify patterns and infer trends. We are using this to understand ourselves and to profit from such understanding. Google is able to provide data (and ads) that are more relevant to your personal characteristics and contextual to your current needs. That’s of value to me (saves me lots of time) so for now I’ll go along with it.