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Privacy has been in the news a lot lately, and as long as we all do everything online, it will continue to be. Going about your business on any given day probably doesn't feel like a data mining bonanza, but it is. Google seems to have the answer to everything but have you ever typed in the search bar "what does Google know about me?"
Hey Google, Where Did You Come From?
The name Google itself comes from the word googol—we didn't know what it meant either. It means the number one followed by 100 zeros. Google started as the brainchild of two Stanford University computer science students in 1995. They created a search engine that tracked and logged online data by using backlink analysis. Its crowning jewel was its ability to collect data and assign an importance rank to each site.
After getting early investments from a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the newly formed Google Inc. rolled out their mission statement of wanting to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” With 66% of US searches being made on Google, they've certainly done that.
It has steadily grown and is such a large company its headquarters, situated in Mountain View CA, is referred to as the Googleplex. Google's presence has sprawled, and now that presence is run by its parent company, Alphabet. Having come a long way from its humble beginnings in a garage, in 2017 the Alphabet company reported revenues of $110.9 billion—with a B.
What Exactly Does Google Know?
To understand what it knows you have to first understand how it knows it. Your information is not just gathered from your search engine anymore—Google's virtual eyes are everywhere these days. So, what does Google know about me, you ask? That depends on how many of their systems, apps, browsers, and videos you access.
So, If I'm The Data, Where Do They Mine?
Long story short—Google is pulling in information about you from every corner of your life. Most obviously, if you Google something, your search and its results are logged in a virtual profile and used to provide you with what Google calls a “more personalized” experience.
Every time you input a search for, say, a dog breed, Google will then log that as one of your recommended topics and each search with similar wording will get similar prompts through auto-fill. It gets weirder from there.
Look at other data-rich platforms Google uses to understand you, your patterns and your every thought—er, potential moves as a consumer.
It Goes Deeper Than That
As if all of those data mining avenues weren't invasive enough, Google's reach goes beyond the obvious of those platforms with Google in front of the designation. You're asking "What does Google know about me and how?" Take a look.
Most of us have this app on our phones and plug in addresses without a second thought. Google is tracking your every move including locations, addresses searched, miles traveled and time in transit. Ever notice you go somewhere, come home and see an ad for vacationing to the town five miles over?
Every link you click on social media that takes you to YouTube is collected to understand your viewing habits. That weird pranking channel you subscribe to is collected right alongside your incessant viewing of John Krasinski and Emily Blunt's couple goals moments. All videos you upload are logged too, so is your YouTube handle really as clever and anonymous as you think?
Say what? Yep, in a deal struck with the social media giant, Google was given direct access to all tweets. So, when you're re-tweeting the Rock's bid for president or tweeting your own thoughts on kale and Brexit, Google is quietly collecting your thoughts.
If you ever put a tagged photo of yourself into Google photos, there's a good chance the search engine knows what you look like. It can pick you out of uploaded pictures, including those your friends or family have uploaded whether they've tagged you or not.
If you have Google home or an Android device with voice recognition, your voice has been logged and identified. There's also a list of all the voice commands you've given and recordings of them—yeah, recordings of them.
What Does Google Do with My Information?
Now that you know where Google collects your information, what do they do with all of it? They use it to get bigger and more powerful. Knowledge is power and with great power comes great responsibility—so, is Google using this information responsibly? You be the judge.
It's Monogrammed For You
Google maintains the primary reason they collect data is to make your experience online customized and individualized just for you. From the second you log on to any of the Google platforms, data miners scan what you're doing hoping to make everything you do easier and feel more personal.
Ads Especially For You
Google wants to take information about you—the places you visit, the things you talk about and websites you click on and create ads based on those data points. If you visit a travel site and check out week-long tours to Ireland, you may later see ads pop up for Ireland vacation packages as you're perusing the web.
The company also uses the data to improve the experience of its users. If you've visited a site and never visit the ad or even click the little x in the top right corner of the banner, they switch gears to change your experience—they want you to click on more ads. Apps that use Google ad services share their information back to Google to better identify users' behavior.
Because Google may be using your geographical location, aggregate searching data, and password storage, they want to prevent fraud and abuse on your account. In an attempt to protect your info, you'll often be asked to verify the device you're using.
Where Are You?
Google uses two types of location information—implicit and explicit. Implicit location information is data they infer based on your browsing history. If you type in “Austin, Texas” their systems infer you're either interested in visiting Austin or that you live there. It extrapolates other information to come to a more absolute decision.
Explicit location information is the data your device sends to let Google know where you physically are. GPS applications give them an exact location of where you are, where you're going and where you've been. Because it tracks data on just about everybody, it can also infer who your friends are based on their location.
All this information is used to better your experience on the web. If you're in a specific store often enough, you may then see specials and ads for that store pop up as advertisements while you're surfing the net. Personal? Yes. Invasive? That's up to you.
Google Photos is rapidly becoming the largest database for stored photos. What can Google do with your photos? Well, when you tag yourself or another person once or twice, their algorithms start to scan and identify your features.
This makes it easier for your friends and family to tag you. But what does Google get out of it? Well, they also get to see the locations you tag, the keyword descriptions you use and everything else in your photos and send advertising your way based on the information they collect.
Google offers a huge platform like this and others for free to its users because the revenue it generates from personalized ads pays the bills. Given the billions of dollars generated from these kinds of ads, most of us agree it's doing a pretty good job of figuring out our likes and dislikes.
I Always Feel Like, Somebody's Listening…
Google home came along after Amazon's Alexa. This smart device is programmed to respond to the key phrase “Hey, Google.” The thing is, it's always listening for that key phrase and, in the process, learns your tone of voice, inflection and typical volume of speech.
Google says scans conversations, stores them locally and discards them. Nobody is clear if Google does anything else with the information although you can feel pretty confident it never leaves Google's servers.
Still, if you're unnerved about every conversation being listened to waiting for the triggering keywords and phrases, the devices do have a mute button. You lose the convenience of being able to shout out questions while you're sitting five feet away, but you'll know its ears are plugged.
So, What's The Big Deal?
Well, it's kind of a big deal in America to feel your privacy is being invaded. There are those who argue if you're not doing anything illegal or iffy, there shouldn't be an issue with big brother or big digital conglomerate listening. Fine, but that's not the foundation on which our America society was built.
Your Right To Privacy
Is your privacy an explicit constitutional right? No. The Supreme Court has made provisions for it through interpretations of amendments and further statutory law. A few examples:
The Privacy Act of 1974 prevents government agencies from sharing your information without your authorization. You also may review government information, dispute data points and request corrections be made. The key word here is agency—courts, non-agency entities or executive sections are not included, and you have no rights to those records.
So, What about Online Privacy Rights?
The first thing to know is you absolutely have online privacy rights. There's been a lot of debate and admonishment for companies that don't protect their users' data. Each time you willy nilly click “agree” to a site's terms and conditions, you're skipping over the privacy agreement for that site. But it's there.
If you're concerned about how each site may use your data, read the terms and conditions—you're committing to a big-time investment, but you'll be certain of what you've agreed to.
Cookies are pieces of text a web server assigns to your hard disk. Each time you visit that site, it retrieves the information it stored about you. This makes your life easier. If you visit Macy's for the first time, their server will assign you a user ID cookie. Next time you visit, their system recognizes you.
This allows sites to accurately determine how many visitors the site gets, and it also allows for a smooth checkout process. They assign each item you put into your cart to your cookie or ID. You know those sites you go to, and it reminds you of the last things you viewed? That's a cookie hard at work.
How Can I Stop All This Data Mining Altogether?
You can eliminate all data mining by going completely offline—but we have to warn you, it's difficult and unrealistic for 99% of us. If you're serious, you will have to find alternate ways to connect with friends, family, co-workers and the outside world in general. Here are a few steps to begin removing your digital footprint:
There are many more steps you can take to try to remove all your information from the web, but it will take time and diligence but even then, may be impossible.
If what you're looking for is to limit the biggest data miner—Google—keep reading. If you don't like the answer to “what does Google know about me,” you can make some changes to limit the answer.
How Do I Control What Google Knows About Me?
Ok, so you know Google is watching, and you'd like to at least shut the blinds and lock the door. You're not covering your house in metal like it's the night of the Purge, but you want a semblance of privacy. We can help.
What's The Base Line?
Let's start with what Google knows about you, as an individual. In 2016, Google made available all the information it's collected about each user on its privacy website called My Activity. Go to https://myactivity.google.com. Probably be sitting down. Maybe grab a cup of chamomile tea—or shot of whiskey. Just be prepared for what you're about to see.
Google will show you a timeline of your activity. You'll see every term you've searched, website you've visited, YouTube video you've watched and book you've downloaded. Take a deep breath. We're going to help you change this.
Stop Following Me!
Let's start with not letting Google to track and store every search you make. Understand, this comes with a tradeoff. If you love how Google kind of just knows what you're about to search, that may become less convenient and intuitive. If you just want them to stop tracking your searches do this:
Google will no longer track what you search. If at any time you decide you want those searches to be more intuitive, you can undo the process.
I Didn't Invite You On This Trip
If you use GPS from your Android device or with Google Maps, Google knows where you've been and where you are. If you've got an iPhone, you're far less tracked. Shake the tail following you:
Android Users Pay Attention
Google tracks the Android devices you use and have used. They do this in an effort to make the experience you have with the next device you log on to more personalized. If you want to lose the footprint you've made on your current phone when you switch to your next one, do this:
Your information won't transfer from one phone to the next, but neither is all the tracking data.
Your Viewing History
Each time you seek out or click a link that brings you to a YouTube video, Google records that. Once they understand your viewing patterns, they make recommendations for other videos you might like.
This is what we call going down a YouTube rabbit hole. One Kristen Bell/Dax Shepard video turns into a video history of their relationship, and suddenly we feel like their friends. Next time you're on YouTube, you'll notice other videos of equally cute (almost) couples you can now peruse. Google knows you like celebrity love.
To make this stop:
Stop Targeting Me
Google creates those profiles it shares with advertisers. This is not a ton of personal information. What it does is use info that it gathers and creates an anonymous you. You're a supposition of yourself with anonymous interests. They then target advertisements tailored to this anonymous you.
Want to know what they think you'll like? Go to https://adssettings.google.com and peruse what they think you'll like. If you want them to keep recommending things to you, then just make sure what they have listed is something you'd like to see. If there's something random for you, like there was for us—hello “fun tests and silly surveys”—you can just delete that particular topic.
If you'd rather not have an advertising profile at all, just turn off ad personalization right from the home screen of the site. Some of the topics they think you like might be funny, but if you turn it off, they won't think you like anything.
Delete Everything Google Knows about You
This seems like it would be the hardest of all the steps, but it's surprisingly the easiest. Go to My Activity. On the left-hand side, you'll see Delete Activity by. Click on that, and it's up to you what you delete and from when.
If you scroll down, you'll see you can delete by today, the last 7 or 30 days or “all time.” You can also pick a specific date range. If you're not ready to let Google dump everything it knows about you, you can scroll down a little more and find the drop-down menu that asks exactly what data you want gone. Here, your choices are:
So not only is this a nice selection of data you can delete but it also clearly spells out the data they've been collecting. And you thought nobody was watching you when you spent too much money on that gadget you'll never use…
If you've got a Gmail account, and most of us do, go to the upper right-hand corner of your inbox page. Click on your icon, and you should see a hyperlinked word “privacy.” Click that.
Google has really done a good job of making their terms easy to read and understand. Their bullet points each have an animated video to make it even easier to understand what they do with your data. Keep in mind; all this information is from the often skeptically viewed horse's mouth. You can read all about the following topics:
Google really wants you to believe they're not this data collecting monster, gobbling up your information to share with companies that just want your money. Are they? That's for you to decide.
It's Not Just Google
Now you know how to check what Google is tracking. Why not do a whole online presence check-up? Go to all your social media sites and check out their privacy sections. Peruse the privacy tabs on all your social sites and just be sure you understand your information, their policy on keeping it secure and where it's all going:
Once you realize where all your information is, you might pull back on how much you share. There's a saying—what you put on the internet stays on the internet forever. It's like the opposite of the Vegas slogan.
Should I Really Worry?
You've asked, “What does Google know about me?” and now you know. Should you worry? Well, that depends completely and solely on what you're comfortable with.
Some people are more comfortable with what the NSA knows about them than they are with Google knowing what it knows. If you're in this category, you've seen steps you can take to limit what is collected from you and therefore shared about you.
Others are completely content even knowing what Google is collecting about them, their patterns and their lives as long as it personalizes their online experience and keeps it convenient. You could Google how to feel about it but—well, you know.