Google Enabled Advertisers To Target Users Based On Sensitive Health Info

By: Chris Crum - January 21, 2014

Google has agreed to take steps to stop “privacy-intrusive” ads related to information about users’ health, according to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner or Canada, which investigated claims from a man with sleep apnea that Google ads for related devices followed him on completely unrelated sites.

Are advertisers going too far in their targeting? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Google actually has a policy in place for avoiding this kind of thing, but clearly it doesn’t always work, so the company has work to do to correct the situation.

Google, in its response (via Search Engine Land), noted that remarketing criteria and user lists are determined by advertisers directly, and that it requires all advertisers to agree to its policies, which prohibit interest-based ads based on “health or medical information” among other things. The company apparently acknowledged that “certain advertisers or third party buyers can use remarketing products in error.”

So in other words, Google doesn’t allow the kind of advertising in question, but doesn’t do enough to prevent it from happening. That is apparently about to change, at least in Canada.

Google, the privacy commissioner says, has committed to provide additional info to advertisers creating remarketing campaigns, increase monitoring for possible violations of its policy, offer more training to its own staff to address potential violations, and upgrade its automated review system. Google has agreed to “fully implement” all of this by June.

“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 behavioural advertising,” says Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier.

“As Canadians spend more and more time online, they create a digital trail that can reveal a great deal about a person,” Bernier added. “Organizations such as Google must ensure privacy rights are respected in this complex environment.”

The United States Federal Trade Commission aided the Privacy Commissioner in the investigation.

The revelation that Google has been serving interest-based ads to users based on sensitive information comes as the company not only faces privacy-related fines elsewhere in the world for unrelated issues, but also as the company has unveiled its own device aimed at actually determining specific health-related data from users.

Last week, Google announced that it has developed an electronic contact lens to help diabetics monitor their glucose levels. They’re currently in discussions with the FDA. Google’s reputation surrounding privacy-related issues will no doubt be a central point of discussion should these things come to market.

Google is also in the headlines for its recently announced acquisition of Nest, which is pending regulatory approval. The company makes smart thermostat and smoke alarm devices, and some have questioned what Google will do with the data from these.

Nest already told users, “Our privacy policy clearly limits the use of customer information to providing and improving Nest’s products and services. We’ve always taken privacy seriously and this will not change.”

Tony Fadell, the company’s CEO, also said at a conference that any changes that may be made in the future will be opt in, and that the company will be transparent about them.

Concerned users fear that Nest will fall under the veil of Google’s broad privacy policy, which enables it to use data from one of its products with its other products for reasons. This is the very policy which the company was fined over in France, though the company is appealing that.

While it didn’t specify any names, the Privacy Commissioner’s office said it will be looking into the practices of other networks in addition to Google.

Have you seen questionable ads based on your previous browsing habits? Let us know in the comments.

Image via Thinkstock

Chris Crum

About the Author

Chris CrumChris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.

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  • Chris Koffend

    Perhaps I am different that many other people. But I would rather see ads that apply to me, my interests and my activities than various random, unrelated ads that make no connection with me or my interests.

    For example, if I have been researching the purchase of a new camera, I would much prefer to be exposed to related camera ads than, lets say sanitary napkins (which as a male, I have no need for).

    I find that Google has proven to be fairly good at feeding me ads that relate to my interests. I still rarely click on such links, but I would rather choose to ignore ads related to me than ads completely unrelated to me.

    Google is to a certain degree like a highway. It provides a certain level and even targeting of viewership. A highway that is used to transport executive level business people from a upscale suburb to and from their homes to their place of business is going to attract certain types of billboards. If one is offended by those billboards, is that the highways fault?

    One does not need to use Google, just as one can choose to take other routes to work. If this “privacy” issue becomes significant enough to enough people, alternative (to Google) options will become available that will have guarantees in place to not collect or track any data. It may be necessary to pay for these services, as their revenue streams (ie. advertising sales) will be greatly impacted and to provide the service a certain degree of revenue needs to be generated to pay for it and for them to profit (for taking the risk of investing and starting the business/service).

    But in reality, I just haven’t seen that big of a demand from most internet users for such. I think most are generally fine with their data being collected and used to market specific products and services to them. My premise is based on the number of past and current Google users, which seem to be growing, despite all the “warnings” that they are having their data collected.


    A woman asked me something about crown molding so I went onto a site to look, took a screenshot and emailed it to her — there is a space behind it so you could run htmi cables behind it at the ceiling…

    Seems like every place I then went was showing me crown molding they were selling. Yeah, that was the first time it was really noticeable because that is not something "typical." I hold no illusions that the marketing and tracking offers me any privacy at all. Glad I was not looking for sex toys or something…