Who Is Following Your Digital Footprints?

What Google’s location data suit means for the average internet user

Jasmine Contreras-Lewis, News Editor

An ever-growing technology age invites internet users to search for information to their heart’s content. What it hides, however, is that these users are also giving away their own information for free.

Forming a Footprint

Each time someone searches, shops, communicates, uses navigation tools or anything in between, they are leaving behind traces of themselves on the internet. Those traces accumulate over time to form what is known as a “digital footprint.”

A person’s digital footprint represents an informational cross-section that can be used to collect data about their health, income, religion, sexuality, marital status, political beliefs and location.

Data and the Law

For Google, the internet’s leading search engine, location data proves extremely useful for advertising: It generates over 80% of the company’s entire revenue. With access to hoards of information from billions of users, Google delivers a highly tailored ad experience, allowing advertisers target ultra-specific audiences.

Those who don’t want to be tracked have the option to turn off “location history” within their Google account settings, but according to a 2018 report by the Associated Press, this does not stop Google from tracking and storing location data.

An investigation was launched after the report was published, and Arizona filed the first suit against Google for consumer deception in 2020. The judge rejected a request for judgment and stated that the case should be tried by jury.

As of Jan. 24, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and three other states have launched their own lawsuits against Google. A press release from the Office of the Attorney General claims that Google “uses a number of deceptive and unfair practices to obtain users’ ‘consent’ to be tracked,” citing the search engine’s “hard-to-find” and “misleading” location settings and the “repeated nudging” it practices to urge users to enable those settings.

Google issued a statement in response, claiming the suits “mischaracterize and inaccurately describe the settings and controls” the search engine gives users. Additionally, the company stated that it has “worked hard” to “build more control and transparency” into products.

Close to Home

SCC computer science Professor Crystal Hess believes in an even-minded approach to internet privacy. In an interview with The Ebbtide, Hess stressed that an integral part of the conversation is the “right to be forgotten”: the right of consumers of internet services to remove their private information.

According to Hess, information collection isn’t inherently a bad thing — the crux of the issue is that people are uninformed about their digital footprints and unaware of the effect it can have on their lives.

“Google isn’t alone,” Hess said, explaining that many other companies collect, store and use personal data. Have you ever talked about a product and seen an ad for it a day, week or even month later? That’s one example.

The real threat of information analytics lies in who has access to your information. Data gathered by companies like Google is generally used to learn about a user, but there is always potential for bad actors. Those who wish to use data maliciously or to manipulate a population’s behavior are at the root of data collection concerns.

Hess said that the information someone chooses to give out should be an informed decision, with her biggest advice being to simply “be aware things like this can happen.”

Taking Control of Your Information

For those specifically concerned with Google, a Jan. 25 blog post entitled “How Google puts you in control of your location data” lists several ways to disable and modify certain data collection practices.

For instance, websites often feature pop-up menus offering users a choice of whether or not to accept “cookies.” These “cookies” are the bits of data that websites use and sometimes exchange with associated organizations. Because it benefits companies to collect information, sites often obscure ways to deactivate cookies.

While some cookies cannot be disabled, advertising and third-party cookies often can be. Make sure you review your choices carefully when receiving these pop-ups and select the correct button when confirming your preferences.

Websites that require you to log into separate accounts, like Facebook, have safety and privacy settings that you can customize to select what you share directly to your profile and what you share with advertisers.

Taking a 10-minute perusal of your own social media and website settings can be interesting and rewarding, regardless of any changes you may or may not make. As you dig deeper, it becomes easier to sort through your options.