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back to article Canada says Google broke law by snooping health info to serve ads

An investigation into Google's online advertising practices by Canadian regulators has found that the Chocolate Factory served ads based on users' sensitive health-related information, in violation of the country's privacy laws. "Most Canadians consider health information to be extremely sensitive," Chantal Bernier, Canada's …

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Bronze badge

never experienced that myself

I hear stories about ad tracking, ads following users around and stuff. For about the past 8 years or so I've had firefox prompt me for each and every cookie, checking the permissions.sqlite database I have 7,103 sites that I have banned cookies from in my browser, and about 450 that I have accepted.

I used to work for an ad targeting company a few years ago that tracked folks based on cookies. They were pretty above board, no funky stuff.. If you opted out they didn't track you(except once I remember a bug being reported and the developer told me he had it fixed the same day it was reported).

It's been pretty effective...and is interesting sometimes to see the sheer number of cookies that some sites try to set, in the off chance I go look at gaming sites I just flat out disable all cookies there's just so many.

I could use ad blockers and stuff but for some reason never did use them.

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Anonymous Coward

I looked at vehicle leasing a few months ago, I now get regular ads, but is it a coincidence that I am now getting spam emails without ever having registered one on of these leasing sites?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: never experienced that myself

I moved hose towards the end of last year, when I was looking all the targeted advertising was for houses, if I looked at one from an advert that was slightly higher than the price range I was previously looking at, the prices of the houses advertised to me went up.

This has stopped now because I got a new house. However I did just buy 16 gigs of RAM for my home server, so I'm now getting adverts from crucial.com for memory modules for my server.

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Give up folks Google considers itself above the law, particularly in 'Alien' countries.

They will continue to do whatever they want.

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Bronze badge

As a user of Adblock Plus, I am mystified by this type of whining. Email spam is a bit more of a problem, but not so hard to deal with that I bother with my ISP's filters - some of the spam is worth looking at just for the humor value.

I would prefer the civil servants to whose salaries I contribute occupy their time on more important matters.

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While adblock plus is stopping the ads from getting to your browser, it won't have stopped your private heath related search terms from getting to the advertisers.

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Silver badge

Why would you search for private health related information with GOOGLE?

There are other search engines. You could also pollute the results by searching for not only sleep apnea, but also erectile dysfunction and ectopic pregnancy. That ought to confuse their algorithms!

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There is a strange corollary to this: using ad-blockers means that I know less about what ad-parasites think they know about me than those who don't block them.

I'm not going to unblock the ads, though.

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Anonymous Coward

Maybe Canada should ban the use of cookies; problem solved.

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Be careful what you wish for. Every site in the EU displays a warning about cookies, and it's damn annoying.

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Silver badge

"Every site in the EU displays a warning about cookies, and it's damn annoying."

Yes and the idea was to allow people to opt out and evey one of those cookie notifications simply tells you they use cookies. The so-called opt-out option is to leave the site and not use it at all.

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Bronze badge

Wanna really contaminate the med ad dbs...

Regulary search on and read material on:

-- HIV

-- colorectal repair surgery

-- incontinence

-- epidurals

-- epilepsy

-- diabetes

-- sleap apnea

-- sleep walking

-- erectile dysfunction

-- viagra

-- turette's syndrome

-- crooked eyes

-- bowed knees

-- pigeon-toe issues

-- arthritis

-- adult diapers

-- camping equipment

-- gimp accessories

-- church choir music

-- knitting

-- terrorism

-- verified Black Amish Men

-- verified White Black Panthers

-- verified satanic undercovers in the Papacy

-- police officer aptitude testing

-- how to become a licensed family therapist

-- dental hygiene schooling

-- paparazzi-verified sightings of celeb-on-celeb mutual-combat buggery and battery

But, do it from different browsers and compartmentalized social sites, and faked profiles, but from the same IP address when possible.

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Re: Wanna really contaminate the med ad dbs...

yeah that'll show 'em.

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Silver badge

Re: Wanna really contaminate the med ad dbs...

Google show you ads based upon who wants to pay the most out of all the people interested in advertising to people like you, so searching for "knitting" a lot is unlikely to result in lots and lots of knit based ads.

There will be some "knitting" ads, but the ad spend of Big Knitting is not particularly large, you'll mainly be shown other ads.

Now, instead search for something that is extremely high value (so only requiring a small number of leads converted to make money) - "laser eye surgery" for instance. Search a few times for that on google, and the ads will follow you for months and months - the advertiser is so desperate for leads and conversions that they outbid most other ads in google, and so you see mainly eye surgery ads.

Other common "high value search terms" that can skew your ads: flights, computers, phones.

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Once again a slap on the wrist from a tame administration. I wonder how many politicians Google actually owns worldwide? That can be the only explanation for the ability of Google to ignore laws which it sees as interfering with its business model of exploiting our data for the benefit of its third party parasite advertisers.

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Anonymous Coward

Yeah, because the reason must always be corruption. Not, say, the fact that laws (and therefore limits on punishment) about this sort of thing were put in place before companies like Google got to the size where they can just ignore the law and pay the fine.

Try to think a little better of people, most politicians actually go into politics to make the world a better place. You may not agree with their methods or ideas but very, very few western politicians are actively corrupt. Look at the UK the biggest political corruption scandal we've managed in the last few years is MPs fiddling their expenses. I put it to you that this was shocking, but blown out of all proportion because there is really so little corruption in politics. (Italy however...)

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Silver badge

... or, there was bigger corruption close to surfacing, and someone decided to let a minor one out. British politics is full of situations where a little was given in order to avoid a serious problem - it is one of the reasons there hasn't been a decent revolution since a Norfolk farmer took the place of a king.

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Silver badge

I'm not sure about this

If I search for information about SUBJECT-X, then I start to see targeted ads about X. This is what happens (if you don't clear cookies etc.) They are saying that if X is personal health related, then my privacy has been violated. The privacy can only have been violated if a person made a decision - 'hey, this man has an interest in X and it's a health thing and lets make a note of who he is by his IP address and other info'.

I thought it was all automated and no 'person' knew about this. The only was to avoid this would be to flag up personal health related searches and actively block them, automatically. The consequence of this would be a definite record of the fact that I had such an interest. The other way would be to ban ads for health products and services.

Am I over thinking this?

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Re: I'm not sure about this

"If I search for information about SUBJECT-X, then I start to see targeted ads about X. This is what happens (if you don't clear cookies etc.) They are saying that if X is personal health related, then my privacy has been violated. The privacy can only have been violated if a person made a decision - 'hey, this man has an interest in X and it's a health thing and lets make a note of who he is by his IP address and other info'."

Quite.

Before reading the article, I wondered if Google had somehow accessed private health information that had been exposed in some way.

But no, the complaint is that what we expect to happen (if you let their cookies reside on your system) happens: ads are targeted based on searches and sites visited, etc.

There is still an argument, sort of - if your use of your computer can be a mixture of private and in front of others, then if you search for something you consider private (health related or not), you may not want to have adverts related to that appear later. However, that's not an argument for slapping Google's wrist - it's an argument for educating users as to how to prevent that happening: Incognito/private browsing mode, and/or sensible cookie management.

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Re: I'm not sure about this

Apart from the fact that if your session is at all linkable to your Google account then the search will still be linked to that. (e.g. you're using chrome)

Google is very very bad at letting people do stuff without recording it against their profile.

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Re: I'm not sure about this

Evidently, Canada considers that it is inappropriate for Google to use your prior interest in a medical issue to send you ads, and I'm prepared to accept that that's right. I might want to show the computer screen to my mother. On the other hand, it might not be my own medical issue. Nevertheless, as their national anthem says, "Go, Canada!"

I suppose it doesn't help the rest of the world, though. Or at best "maybe".

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Happy

two easy solutions

1) use Incognito browsing mode when searching for sensitive information. All your cookies will be gone as soon as you close the Incognito window.

2) if you do not like the ads being served to you, go here and tell Google to stop:

https://support.google.com/adsense/troubleshooter/1631343

(this page is linked from every Google ad as a blue triangle "AdChoices" button")

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Don't use Google ..

If you choose to use Google to search for 'stuff', then you can't complain if they use the results for targeted advertising.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Don't use Google ..

Why not?

I don't have a Google account, I never sign in: If I search for something in my office, I don't expect other machines in the house and/or work to have advertising appropriate to what I've just searched for targeted at them. This has happened, but only with holiday locations (it was about this point I stopped using Google search so much), however should I be looking up something that I can't or don't want to discuss with my wife, bankruptcy, illness, etc, I don't want adverts appropriate to these subjects appearing on her laptop.

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Anonymous Coward

Noticed this myself

If I visit an online store, ads from this store might show up everywhere afterwards. I had to block it in Adblock.

Some online stores let third party ad companies put cookies on your computer based on what you look at on their website and then the third party ad company's server start putting ads everywhere on the interweb based on what you watched on that particular online store.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Noticed this myself

Ad blockers: A solution or a problem?

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Re: Noticed this myself

The industry specific term is "retargeting". You'll find a huge number of ecommerce sites using it.

On topic, if Google were shown to have snooped other information from a user without their knowledge they should be prosecuted. I seriously doubt Google are (or need to be) that dumb. User searches for stuff, Google shows relevant ads - that's how it works.

The argument that you don't want another person using your computer guessing what kind of stuff you've been searching for based on ads they see seems pretty lame. Like leaving a lingerie catalogue on the dining room table, then blaming the lingerie company because yer missus worked out what she was getting for her birthday. It's hardly Google's fault if we're indiscreet.

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Ads are optional

I block google and a number of other sites at the firewall. I use Wireshark to see where traffic is going to or coming from and block accordingly. I also use adblock. Not so on my Playbook. I was looking at a website recently looking at a particular brand, then opened El Reg in a new tab and found ads for said brand. So no surprise google can do this. So I block cookies when I don't need to log on to a website and clear any cookies as soon as I have finished.

I think google need reining in on this issue where searches on health issues and devices are concerned and maybe other areas too. I don't use any google services. I use another search engine. The problem with google is their success is due in part to their search engine being very good and we having used them have helped them on their way to success. Yes, I remember using them in the mid-nineties. Not any more.

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Bronze badge

Missing the issue entirely

Google break the law, blame the advertisers. If the article is accurate then blames rests squarely and undeniably on Google. It is the collection of sensitive data that is restricted, not acting upon that collected data.

Therefore if a Canadian searches for "green penile wart" or similar and that is recorded Google are in breach right away - the law is broken the instant the user is put in the "searched on genital warts" box. You could legitimately dish out sponsored links in the search results themselves, even if they are of a sensitive nature - after all, no data has been collected (as in put into a collection) at that point. However, after that the data must be discarded.

Advertisers are then free to select based on whatever criteria they want. If it is for sensitive data they simply get no results. Blaming the advertisers for this is passing the buck for Google's own illegal activity.

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Silver badge
WTF?

It's amazing to watch where ...

Google cookies originate from.

On our browsers we can read which cookies are served by which companies and even though Google cookies are deleted from every non-Google page, and at page closure.

I wonder if there is a limit on just how many unique cookie identifiers there are before Google has to start all over again with the sequence?

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