Google Knows My Birthday… and yours too

Who doesn’t love an unexpected birthday wish? I’ve been around the sun almost 70 times, and I still get a thrill every single time I get a birthday greeting. It doesn’t matter who sends it. Family, colleagues at work, my dentist or the world’s largest tech company. Each one makes me feel special. My sisters and I continue to send gifts and cards for each birthday. The lovely people I work with celebrate it with funny gifs and usually a cake when we’re not all working from home. My dentist sends a “personalized” email message and a gentle reminder about scheduling a visit. Guess he’s worried about the amount of cake and ice cream I may or may not be consuming. But Google? That’s where things get, well, kinda creepy. That’s when data collection and digital privacy concerns collide with a very personal celebration.

Digital Privacy is an Illusion

If you stop and think about it, the natural question to ask is, HOW does Google know my birthday? How is easy since it’s part of my Google profile. But then I wondered, WHY should Google know my birth date? And that leads to a host of very real digital privacy concerns.  Most people simply don’t think too much about either of those questions. Most are just happy to have a special Google Doodle, which is invariably cheerful and festive. It makes us feel special to see that bit of text when we hover over the illustration wishing us a happy birthday and using our first name! Wow. Google knows my name.And it's raising digital privacy concerns.

But cake and presents aside, seeing that personalized message is just the tip of the iceberg of how much of your information is out there. The meteoric rise of data collection on a world-wide scale means Google, and numberless other big brands, know more about you than your BFF does. And that has privacy advocates worried.

Big Brother is Watching

When you visit a website, chances are a small file of code is stored on your computer by that website. This code is called a cookie, and it can be read only by the domain that placed it on your computer. There are good reasons for the use of that code because it helps you get the best website experience. But third-party cookies are different. Third-party cookies are issued by advertisers, social media sites, and other sources when you visit a website that allows them. This type of cookie tracks your online behavior (which websites you visit) so they can collect information about you.

Think about your own recent searches. You’ve been browsing and researching a potential purchase or liking a brand’s Instagram post on your phone while waiting in the car line. Then you start noticing that while you’re checking your email, you’re seeing ads for that thing you were researching or that brand you liked pop up on your laptop. That’s the power of third-party cookies. Those brands are using them to keep their products and services in front of you, even when you’re not searching for them.

By tracking you online, the brand is reaping personal information about you, including gender, age, origin, and more. They can use this data to refine their marketing strategy to increase the chances of converting you into a buyer. This collection of personal data is one reason hackers target major brands. By collecting your data from different sources, hackers gain the ability to sell your identity and/or hack your more sensitive accounts.

Protect Your Digital Privacy  

If you’re wondering what the average person can do, the answer is plenty.

First, educate yourself on what digital information hackers want. (Hint: it’s not just your social security number or bank account number.) Read those terms and conditions before you hit the accept button. It can be mind-numbing reading, but you need to know who owns your data. Chances are high it won’t be you.

Second, familiarize yourself with the resources available to you if your personal information is compromised. Every other week I get phishing email. It takes mere seconds to search online how to report it and to whom. If we all took one minute to do this, chances are we’d be seeing a lot less of it. There are also federal laws that protect your online privacy. It’s a patchwork and imperfect system, but it’s a start.

Third, do a self-audit of your passwords. If a hacker cracks one of your accounts using your dog’s name and your birth date, that’s info that can lead to cracking more of your accounts because we’re creatures of habit.

Fourth, clear the cookies from your browser on a regular basis. I suggest doing it manually as a way to learn which sites and third parties are heavily involved in this type of data collection.

Fifth, stay informed. Google has announced that it will block the use of third-party cookies for its Chrome browser in 2022. While the search giant has cast this move as a way to preserve individual privacy, the reality is more complex. But because Chrome is the most-used browser, this move will impact digital marketing in big ways.

When my next birthday rolls around, I’ll be excited to open actual birthday cards, chat with my sisters as they call to wish me a happy day, and check to see if any brand has sent me a special coupon to encourage me to shop for myself. But I won’t be using Google search that day.

If you’d like to know more about cookies, digital privacy, and how to adapt to the ever-changing world of digital marketing, EVG would like to chat with you online or by phone or even in person!

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