Google searches put consumers at risk


Google knows the questions people wouldn’t dare ask out loud, and it silently offers tons of answers. But it’s a mistake to think of a search engine as an oracle for anonymous queries. This is not the case. Not even close.

In some cases, the most intimate questions a person asks themselves (about health concerns, relationship issues, financial struggles) are those that set off a chain reaction that can have unsettling consequences both online and offline.

This is all due to the fact that being online increasingly means being put into categories based on a socio-economic portrait of you that is constructed over time by advertisers and the search engines that collect your data – a portrait that data brokers buy and sell, but which you can’t control or even see. (Not if you’re in the United States, anyway.)

Take the example of a person who searches on Google “need money for rent quickly” or “cannot pay the rent”. Among the search results returned by Google, there may be ads that promise to help provide payday loans, ads designed to bypass Google policies against predatory financial advertising. They are placed by companies called lead generators, and they work by collecting and distributing personal information about consumers online. So while Google says it bans ads that guarantee foreclosure prevention or promise short-term loans without communicating specific loan terms, lead generators can direct consumers to a landing page where they are invited. enter sensitive identifiable information. Then payday lenders buy that information from lead generators and, in some cases, target those consumers – online, by phone, and by mail – for the very types of short-term loans that Google bans.

Lead generators are increasingly monitored by federal agencies and consumer advocates. Upturn recently posted a damning report on lead generators, and practice was at the center of a workshop organized by the Federal Trade Commission Last week.

“I find the entire online ecosystem designed to track consumers and then put them in boxes… too opaque and too under-regulated,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the US consumer group. PIRG, during the FTC workshop on Friday. “So I think the whole online marketing, advertising, and lead generation system is both a deceptive and unfair consumer protection issue, and possibly abuse as well.”

Online lead generation is complicated in part because it involves a long chain of different businesses including, but not limited to, search engines, lead aggregators, and the businesses that end up buying them. leads. The practice also involves several layers of privacy and consumer protection concerns.

Not only do lenders take advantage of financially vulnerable people, not only do lead generators sometimes bypass Google’s advertising policies and even violate state laws, but businesses share individual data in a way that puts consumers directly in touch. danger. It all comes down to the widespread availability and longevity of personal data online.

Imagine again the person who turns to Google with a search term like “need money fast”. Let’s say this person ends up on a lead generator landing page, providing various information in the hopes of getting a loan fast. “A very small percentage of these people actually qualify for a loan,” said Michael Waller, an enforcement lawyer in the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “And so the vast majority — 95 percent of those claims, which means 95 percent of the people whose Social Security numbers and bank account numbers fall to the cutting room floor — are called into the industry. “leftovers”. “

These so-called leftovers are not thrown away, however. They are sold and resold and resold again. “What is created over time is the consumers who just become suckers,” Waller said at the FTC workshop. “It’s a list of suckers. And people will buy this information for all kinds of reasons. “

“Data brokers, publishers, the people who have this information – and many people have access to this information down the chain because it is shared freely even though it is not purchased – it is subject to a strong pressure to use them, to monetize what they see as an asset, ”Waller said. “Which is just a big pile of data, a big pile of data points.”

As the big piles of online data continue to grow, these issues will become more pronounced. The information filters that control which version of the Internet a person sees are calibrated based on how much money various algorithms think you have. This means that distinct digital advertising landscapes are increasingly drawn on socio-economic bases.

The effect can be a more enjoyable online experience for someone who is perceived to have more income. In the same way that startups have put cut human interaction for those who can afford it, the absence of adversity can be a luxury for those who choose to buy ad blockers so their web pages load faster. But distinct advertising landscapes aren’t just about seeing more elegant corporate messages or encountering fewer, if any, contextual ads. Businesses and individuals are working together to target consumers on a personal level, to use their most vulnerable Google searches against them.

“Fraudsters buy this data,” Waller said. “It’s easy to access, easy to buy, easy to find. They sometimes use it for really shocking and outright fraud and theft. Sometimes it’s a little more subtle than that.


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