Is Google Spying on my customers?

Jenna Lamb, online marketing analyst at Ontario SEO
Jenna Lamb
February 17, 2015
Is Google Spying on my customers?

I was recently asked by a friend at a party how I gather all this exciting internet data I am always carrying on about. Excited I had finally engaged someone in this topic, I launched into an explanation of how Google uses tracking cookies to gather user data. He stared at me blank faced and said, “So basically you are telling me that Google is spying on me? Is that even legal?”

“Of course” I quickly replied, “since they are not collecting any personally identifiable information”. He looked at me dubiously, but moved on to a more exciting discussion about the upcoming Super Bowl prospects. But I think his question was more legitimate than I first gave him credit for.

Google Analytics is an amazing tool that allows business owners to understand how people are interacting with their website. Using the data collected by Google Analytics you can gain key insights into online behaviour and more importantly define and measure key performance indicators (KPIs). This kind of data is critical to the website optimization process and at Ontario SEO we use it daily to monitor our clients’ website performance and guide our SEO and SEM strategies.

How does Google collect this data?

The data is collected by using a third party tracking cookie. Cookies are small text files that are saved on a user’s device that can store a variety of information like user preferences, location and online actions. Google uses a variety of cookies: for security, to store user preferences, track user purchasing, collect Google Analytics data, and for advertising. These cookies are created as soon as you use a Google product (like Gmail or Chrome) or visit a website that has Google Analytics tracking code installed.

As a side note, Google is not the only company collecting user data online. Bing, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter – all the major internet companies do it as well, although their methods may vary.

Well isn’t that spying?

Well no. Spying is defined as, “work for a government or other organization by secretly collecting information about enemies or competitors”. The key here for me is ‘secret’; there is nothing secret about what Google is doing. Every user of a Google product accepts Google’s terms and conditions, which inform users of the use of tracking cookies. All websites using Google Analytics should have it clearly outlined in their privacy policy that they are using tracking cookies to understand user behaviour. Though I will admit this definition of spying comes from Google, I think it is an important point; Google is not spying, it is gathering data you have implicitly, if not directly, consented to.

But is it legal?

Google collects user behaviour data to build and perfect their data algorithms in order to provide internet users with free services. According to Google they keep user data anonymous. To give users privacy, Google assigns each website user a unique identifier that is not directly connected to any personal information like a name, birthday or address. In this way Google collects user data legally in Canada under the provisions of PIPEDA (Personal Information

Protection and Electronic Documents Act); the legislation that governs the collection of personal information in Canada. Under these provisions user behaviour data can be collected as long as the user has given “meaningful consent”. As the legislation currently stands, Google meets the required criteria.

Want to jump down a fascinating rabbit hole and read more about PIPEDA, Google and online data collection? Visit the Privacy Commissioner‘s website.

Okay so Google can collect this data legally, but can my business website?

According to the Canadian Privacy Commissioner’s policy position, you are able to collect online user behaviour data (use Google Analytics) as long as you meet certain conditions of obtaining “meaningful consent”. Here is a list of their recommendations for obtaining “meaningful consent” to collect user behaviour data:

1. Be clear and transparent about the use of cookies and user behaviour data on your website, preferably before any data is collected.

  • You should use an online banner, layered approach or interactive tools to inform users of your data collection practices.
  • The information should be clearly explained in your privacy policy.
  • Your privacy policy should be easy to find and understand

2. You must clearly define the purpose for collecting the data in a clear and understandable way at the time of, or preferably before, the collection of any data

3. You must limit your data collection to non-sensitive information.

4. There must be a way for users to opt-out or withdraw their consent for data collection. This opt out must be immediate and persistent.

5. You should avoid knowingly tracking children or websites that are targeted at children.

This blog provides general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice. If you have questions or concerns about your website’s data collection practices in Canada I encourage you to visit the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.