Slicing and Dicing Users – Google Style

Courts docs show how Google slices users into “millions of buckets” by Jeff Gould.

From the post:

The first law of selling is to know your customer. This simple maxim has made Google into the world’s largest purveyor of advertisements, bringing in more ad revenue this year than all the world’s newspapers combined. What makes Google so valuable to advertisers is that it knows more about their customers — that is to say, about you — than anyone else.

Where does Google get this knowledge? Simple. It watches most everything you do and say online — reads your email (paying special attention to purchase confirmations), peers over your shoulder while you browse, knows what you watch on YouTube, and — by tracking your devices — even knows where you are at this very moment. Then it assembles all these bits of information into a constantly updated profile that tells advertisers when, where and what you may hanker to buy.

Your Google profile contains far more than basic facts such as age, gender and product categories you might be interested in. It also makes statistically plausible guesses about things you didn’t voluntarily disclose. It estimates how much you earn by looking up IRS income data for your zip code. It knows if you have children at home — a trick it performs by surveying hundreds of thousands of parents, observing their online behavior, then extrapolating to millions of other users. Google also offers advertisers over 1,000 “interest-based advertising” categories to target users by their web browsing habits. When advertisers are ready to buy ads they can review all these attributes in a convenient browser interface and select exactly the users they want to target.

But these explicit attributes only scratch the surface. The online ad giant knows much more about you than it can put into a form easily understandable by humans. Just how much it knows came to light last year, when a Federal judge ordered the publication of some remarkable internal Google emails discussing how Gmail data mining works. Google’s lawyers fought the disclosure tooth and nail, but they were ultimately overruled. The emails reveal that Gmail can sort users not just into a few thousand demographic and interest categories, but into literally millions of distinct “buckets”. A “bucket” is just a cluster of users, however small, who share some feature in common that might interest advertisers.

The document shown in this post can be found at:

If you want more documents from the case, see: Dunbar v. Google, Inc. (Justia)

Jeff’s post is a great illustration of how massive data collection can discover more about you than you would choose to share.

Efforts to legislate the collection/preservation of data leave your safety in the hands of those with few motivations to follow the law.

A better solution leaves few, if any fingerprints at all. What isn’t visible, can’t be collected.

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