Google knows you’re pregnant before you do

12 Jan

The notion here, borrowed incidentally from BBC technology columnist Bill Thompson, is that Google can pick up on early symptoms from the aggregated data from millions of emails and diagnose you, before you even call the doctor.

The notion took on personal relevance a few months back I logged into Facebook and was rather bemused to see that the contextual ads – that permeate our experience of free online aps and cloud services – were offering me bankruptcy services.

Contextual ads form the basis of Google and Facebook’s revenue models, serving you ads based on your search terms, or the content of your emails. With this in mind I scanned recent emails, but could find no mention of bankrupcy, debt, or owing Michael $2 for the brownie he paid for a week ago.
So where had this ad come from? What information was Facebook gleaning from its, or someone else’s, database before sentencing me to a life of penury.

Most people these days are increasingly vigilant while using e-commerce sites and have learned to look for the security safeguards; https domain addresses, little padlocks in the status bar, security messages at the Point of Sale etc. but do we consider how our personal details will be stored, and for how long? And who else might have access to them?

In the last five years the UK government has made $30 million selling the names and addresses of more than six million motorists to debt collectors, solicitors and finance companies and even to a firm whose two directors were serving seven years in prison for extorting money from motorists.

If national governments can be so cavalier with our personal details, then is the cost of securing our online information of prime concern to the private sector? Especially in the current economic climate.

So was the bankruptcy ad served after accessing my bank details and calculating credits vs. debits? Or is it, as I suspect, just part of a large media buy. Do I dare ask my peers if they’ve seen similar ads? What if it’s just me? Where have possibly inaccurate personal details about me ended up, and with what future consequences? Would the next time I see my friends be visiting hour in a Victorian debtors prison?

In these times we’d do well to be extra vigilant and consider, gulp! trawling through the terms of service and privacy statements for social networking sites. We should ask companies up-front about their security policy. If they can’t or won’t re-assure us then maybe they don’t deserve our business.

In the meantime I’m deciding whether to open that next unopened email. Who knows what news might be waiting.

What are your experiences, have you been surprised by what websites seem to know about you?

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