Erik Telford

Are you comfortable with one of the world’s most powerful corporations recording and analyzing every email you send and receive, every document you open, the videos that you watch online, and your full search history?

That’s right, when it comes to privacy, Google has roughly the same policy as a bad Sting song from the 80s: every breath you take, every move you make--they’ll be watching you.

Very few Americans can say they’ve never used one of Google’s services--such as YouTube, Google Docs, and Gmail--to the extent that the term “Google” was officially declared a verb in 2006 by Merriam-Webster, defining the practice of using an internet search engine. Unfortunately, too few members of the public are aware of the company’s intrusive tactics of gathering users’ personal information and using it to target them.

Even more troubling than the way Google uses this data to target advertising toward its consumers, is the way it is targeting ads to the public at large, especially when it comes to search results on individuals’ names.

According to a recent study by Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney, if you have a “traditionally black name,” you’re more likely to see Google Ads promoting criminal background checks and arrest record searches, even if you’ve never had so much as a parking ticket. Names like Trevon, Lakisha, and Darnell are significantly more likely to trigger crime-related ads than names like Brandon or Katie, according to the study of over 2,100 names by computer scientists and data privacy specialists. In fact, the differences in advertising are so blatant that Harvard’s researchers put the odds of coincidence at only 1 percent.

This shocking study begs the question: exactly how is Google using our personal information to determine which advertisements are served to us?

Given the longstanding track record of close, and inappropriate, ties between the company and the Obama administration, I decided to conduct an anecdotal examination of Google’s targeting practices on an ideological basis. I set up dummy Gmail profiles for a conservative living in Tennessee, and a liberal living in Brooklyn – with the conservative signed up for email lists like the National Rifle Association, pro-life organizations, and religious groups; while subscribing the liberal to lists like DailyKos,, and environmental groups.

Erik Telford

Erik Telford is Vice-President for Strategic Initiatives and Outreach, at the Franklin Center. Contributions reflect his personal views.