Google says a recent study that found their advertising programs analyzed Gmail users’ names to racially profile them and deliver more relevant ads is "wildly inaccurate."
Nathan Newman of Tech Progress conducted the unofficial study and found that Google’s AdWords and AdSense, advertising programs that deliver online ads to most Internet users in the United States, could deliver targeted ads to users based on race by analyzing their names, surnames, class and geographical location. Essentially his study concluded Google can racially profile users to deliver a more personalized internet experience.
Part of Newman’s study included sending emails with sender names that were typically white and black. In one email sent by a dummy account using the name "Connor Erickson" with the subject "Arrested: need lawyer" Gmail populated ads for criminal and fraud attorneys. But when a user named "DeShawn Washington" sent the same email, Gmail populated ads for attorneys specializing in DUI cases.
Newman concluded that "people do not live in the same online world, even when they use the same terms."
Yet representatives from Google say that not only were Newman’s methods wrong, but his conclusions are completely false.
"The original post relies on flawed methodology to draw a wildly inaccurate conclusion," Rob Shilkin, a representative with Google told Colorlines.com in a statement. "If Mr. Newman had contacted us before publishing it, we would have told him the facts: we do not select ads based on sensitive information, including ethnic inferences from names."
Newman’ study also suggested Google analyzed the users names and subject lines in emails, but Google also denies those allegations. "We don’t monitor the use of names as keywords. However, an advertiser cannot select a keyword solely to target ads alongside your Gmail message. Also, the header (to / cc) field is not used to identify keywords."
Newman, who reminds us his study was a "preliminary investigation," still stands by his findings. In a statement to Colorlines, he wrote: "I would note that searches using the name "Juan Martinez" repeatedly brought up an ad for "Juan Navarro – www.exxelgroup.com – President and CEO of the Exxel Group" and that ad was served up ONLY for ones having Juan Martinez in the subject line. Whatever the sample size of my investigation, the probabilities of such a result are essentially zero without the ads being tied to the name. So clearly, some ads are being served up based on the name and the name alone."
Newman’s study may be flawed but it does raise important questions. The reality is Google doesn’t even need a user’s name to figure what their ethnicity is. Users themselves provide a fairly accurate digital profile to Google each time they contribute click behavior, use Google tools, and use the company’s search engine.
When a user is signed into Gmail, Google stores their search history "indefinitely or until removed by the user. When the user is signs out, their browsing history is stored on Google’s servers for up to 180 days. In addition to a user’s browsing history, their location and IP information is easily available. These three things combined with information available in Google’s public data explorer (including US census, education, population, STD stats, and state financial data) presumably could also be folded into the personalized search algorithm to surmise a lot more than your race.
Personalized search is a default setting. For more information on turning personalization off visit Google’s help page or third-party tutorials.