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Google’s Big Card Data Play

Google has long claimed that the ads it shows users actually prompt them to make purchases online and in real life – and now they have the credit card data to prove it.

Google has begun using billions of credit-card transaction records – 70 percent of all transactions for credit and debit cards in the United States according to reports – to determine just how many sales are being generated by digital ad campaign.

It’s a power that the Washington Post referred to as the Google achieving “the holy grail” of online advertising – and it’s awoken a new round of privacy debates about just how much Google knows about its users.

Because, with its access to users search histories, geolocation data in combination from all the data it harvest from YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and the Google Play store – Google knows an awful lot of very personal (and personalized) data about its users.

With the bulk of American credit card data spend in the mix, Google can follow its users offline in a very tangible way, which has left consumer privacy advocates wondering if perhaps customers might not like Google observing their purchasing habits quite so closely.

Google, for its part, has responded to those concerns with renewed assurances of its ability to protect the personal information of its users.

“While we developed the concept for this product years ago, it required years of effort to develop a solution that could meet our stringent user privacy requirements,” Google said in a statement. “To accomplish this, we developed a new, custom encryption technology that ensures users’ data remains private, secure, and anonymous.”

Google further noted that the custom encryption is built on patent-pending mathematical equations built to protect the privacy of consumers when they match a Google user with a shopper who makes a purchase in a brick-and-mortar store. The company claims those formulas convert user’s names and other purchase information  into anonymous number strings that essentially “double-blind” the data. Neither Google nor its retail partners have access, and neither knows the shopper’s identity.

Google did not offer much in the way of detail on how users card data and online identities are connected, nor did they disclose what companies are analyzing records of credit and debit cards on Google’s behalf.

“What’s really fascinating to me is that as the companies become increasingly intrusive in terms of their data collection, they also become more secretive,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

He urged government regulators and Congress to demand answers about how Google and other technology companies are collecting and using data from their users.

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