Google's Multi-touch Attribution Tools Spark Privacy Fears

Some of Google's many appsAt the end of May Google announced its new tool that matches in-store, brick and mortar purchases to online behavior. On July 31st EPIC filed a complaint with the FTC to stop it.

Marketers have long sought ways to measure the effectiveness and ROI of marketing spend, and evaluating digital dollars has been the most confounding of all. Making the association between online behaviour and online purchase has relied on "last click" measurements. So if a consumer was visiting a DIY website, clicked on an ad for woodworking tools, and made a purchase, the DIY website would be paid for the click through and sales conversion.

But this simplified method of attribution, while seemingly the only possible way to handle it, was thought to be far too simple. Other things, marketers felt, could have propelled the buyer down the path to purchase. Emails campaigns, online videos, digital ads, search, and word of mouth can play their part in nudging a buyer along.

Even more difficult to substantiate were claims that those same digital efforts were instrumental in driving in-store purchases. Google has been focused on ways to validate and quantify the many touchpoints along the way, and now its sophisticated multi-touch attribution tool is making the connection. Digital marketers are delighted, but many privacy proponents are appalled. Google already knows too much about our online lives, they feel. And now Google is monitoring consumers in the real world too.

Perhaps the most stunning news is that Google already has access to the credit and debit card records of 70 percent of U.S. consumers. Now Google is able to match online clicks with card purchases at a real world store, allowing marketers to see the effectiveness of their digital efforts. Spending more on digital is the goal, of course as Google looks to increase the $79 billion spent with its online ad network in 2016.

The data is anonymized and encrypted, and Google says it does not share the specifics of the personal data it holds on consumers with its partners that have the card transaction data. And vice versa. There is a secret mathematical formula that makes the connections without revealing the specifics to either side.

Privacy advocates want the FTC to examine the algorithm rather than taking Google's word for it. And the other great concern is the encryption, which is supposed to keep all the extensive data safe from exposure and hacking. The encryption method, known as CryptDB has already been hacked in an earlier breach of a health care database.

Another point of contention is the difficulty in opting out and a lack of info allowing consumers to make decisions about opting out. Google will not reveal what companies are providing the transaction data. Nor will they say which cards are in the trackable 70% or the 30% Google does not have access to. EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, wants the FTC to examine the program to ensure privacy is protected, and to force Google to stop the tracking until that determination has been made.

The Washington Post notes that: 

"In 2011 and 2012, Google paid multi-million-dollar fines to settle FTC charges on privacy issues. In 2011, in response to a case brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Google settled FTC charges that it used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises when it launched its social network, Google Buzz. In the 2012 case, for $22.5 million, Google was charged with misrepresenting its privacy promises to users of Apple’s Safari browser, who were under the impression that they could opt out of ad tracking."

A NO GO in the EU
An article by the BCC says that the program wouldn't be accepted in the EU, which has stronger privacy regulations than the US. Specifically the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires explicit opting-in and consent by consumers about how their data will be used.

A UK based privacy organization, Big Brother Watch, says that consumers are often creeped out by targeted ads that follow them around the internet. And now, it adds,  "These plans appear to extend 'creepy' into the physical world."

Some recent stats:

  • Each day, Google analytics processes half a trillion data points across devices.
  • The company has measured more than 5 billion store visits across 17 countries in the last 30 months.
  • Google's partnerships have captured information about approximately 70% of all credit card transactions in the U.S.