Google Blasted For 'Privacy Gaslighting'

A lengthy privacy statement posted this week by Google amounts to “gaslighting,” two prominent researchers said Friday.

In its much-publicized statement, Google argues that blocking cookies harms privacy by encouraging companies to use even more invasive techniques, like digital fingerprinting.

Privacy experts Jonathan Mayer and Arvind Narayanan say Google's reasoning is lacking, and its conclusions incorrect. 

“Cookie blocking does not undermine web privacy. Google’s claim to the contrary is privacy gaslighting,” they write.

“To appreciate the absurdity of this argument, imagine the local police saying, 'We see that our town has a pickpocketing problem. But if we crack down on pickpocketing, the pickpocketers will just switch to muggings. That would be even worse. Surely you don’t want that, do you?'” they write on the Freedom to Tinker blog. “While fingerprinting is indeed a privacy invasion, that’s an argument for taking additional steps to protect users from it, rather than throwing up our hands in the air.”

Digital fingerprinting involves identifying users based on data about their computers, such as browser versions, installed fonts and plug-ins. The technique has long been controversial. In 2015, the standards group World Wide Web Consortium, directed by Web guru Tim Berners-Lee, warned that digital fingerprinting -- along with other forms of tracking that are difficult for users to control -- was "a blatant violation of the human right to privacy."

The researchers also raise questions about Google's statement this week that cookie blocking hurts publishers' revenue -- a finding contradicted by academic research published earlier this year.

“There is a glaring omission of the details of the measurement that are necessary to have any sort of confidence in the claim,” Mayer and  Narayanan write. “This is a topic that merits much more research, and it’s disingenuous for Google to cherry pick its own internal measurement. And it’s important to distinguish the economic issue of whether tracking benefits advertising platforms like Google (which it unambiguously does) from the economic issue of whether tracking benefits publishers (which is unclear).”

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