Professor James Davenport explains Google's recent privacy policy action

Professor James Davenport of the Department of Computer Science comments on Google’s decision to implement its new privacy policy despite warnings.

Professor Davenport said: “Briefly, what we are talking about is aggregation - detecting behaviour patterns, and interests, by putting together lots of small clues.

“There's nothing new about this: when you walk in to your local pub and the bartender pours your favourite drink, he has aggregated data about you. Sherlock Holmes is possibly one of the most famous aggregators of data.

“By and large, we welcome aggregation when it's done by other humans, in ‘friendly’ contexts.

“However, in a recent example, an American aggregation company Target aggregated data to determine the identity of women that were pregnant in order to send them relevant advertising material. In at least one case this reached a teenage girl before her father knew she was pregnant. Many people would say that was overly-aggressive data aggregation.

“This case demonstrates that a discussion is required regarding good and bad aggregation, however I do not believe that Google’s action today is the correct test-case.

“The reason the public have been so concerned is not because the company is collating internal data for marketing purposes, as all companies do this, but because Google is aggregating data across different areas of its business. This includes its recently acquired video sharing platform YouTube.

“This merger of user guidelines for all of its sites allows Google to cross-share the data collected through them: the users have been told this is happening. This is no different than if Tesco were to merge with Costa Coffee on the high-street, and then combine data from both companies’ loyalty schemes for its marketing. However because Google’s activity is taking place online we’re less comfortable with it.

“How we feel about aggregation is also linked to our culture – Americans are more likely to think that digital aggregation is attractive technology, whereas in Europe we’re more cautious and view it as a violation of our privacy.

“This again makes data regulation in a digitalised world a very complicated discussion – even here in the EU there is no standard view on personal and private. In Sweden and Finland, in sharp contrast to the UK and US, tax returns are not deemed to be private data.

“It is therefore clear that the difference between positive and negative data aggregation is a necessary debate to have, however in my personal opinion I don’t feel that Google’s actions today are the point at which to draw the line.”

Listen to Professor Davenport on BBC Radio Bristol

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