By now, it shouldn’t shock you to learn that everything you do in this Internet-connected world leaves a trail of breadcrumbs. You can reasonably expect that if a web-enabled service is involved, and an activity can be tracked, it will be.
Now I’m not talking about Edward Snowden-level revelations, or hacking (whether celebrity– or politically-driven). I’m talking about the personal data collected from us each day, with our consent, by the companies that make the products we use. Let’s call it the part of the personal data iceberg that’s underwater, but visible if you just take the trouble of looking down. The stuff you can take at face value. Do you know what you’re agreeing to when you click one of those Terms of Service announcements that pop up when you first use or update a product? Me either. So I decided to find out, starting with the Biggest Brother of them all: Google.
What does Google know about me? How do they find out? And what steps can I take to protect myself and my personal data?
Do you think it was easy digging up this stuff? Well, in a word: yes.
Much has been made of Google’s early “don’t be evil” resolution, but I was still surprised to find the company has a bunch of tools to help me (and you) understand what they collect in astonishing detail. And many of these tools have existed for years. “When you use Google services, you trust us with your data,” Google’s privacy site will tell you. “It is our responsibility to be clear about what we collect and how we use it to make our services work better for you.” The more conspiracy-minded among us may roll our eyes at this, but I followed the thread to see where it led.
First, I wanted to get a sense of the scope of what I was looking into. In other words:
When we say “Google,” what do we mean?
- Global market share for Online Search: 78.8%
- Annual advertising revenue: $67.39bn
- Number of individual searches annually: > 2 Trillion
- More than half of these searches come from mobile devices
- Global market penetration for Android: 61-81%
- Number of apps available in Google Play store: > 700,000
- Number of Google products and services: 50
- Global penetration for YouTube: 82%
- Number of websites using Google Analytics for traffic/user tracking: 30-50 million
(Want more Google search stats and fun facts? Try these on for size.)
Google’s business model is mostly advertising-driven — in fact, roughly 89% of the 75 billion dollars in revenue the company earned last year is from ads. This ad business owes its success to its responsiveness to consumers. So you know what that means: to Google, we are the product. We’re donating information about ourselves every time we use one of those 50 products and services. Our attention turns into their dollars, and the better they are at showing us ads that we act on, the more they can charge others for our attention.
Google is in the business of knowing us, and giving us what we want just when we want it.
What information does Google get from me?
According to Google, only three kinds of personal data are collected from Google users:
- Things you do
- Things you create
- Things that make you “you”
When I first read that, I had to let it sink in a minute. Vague? Yes. Comprehensive? Oh hells Yes! But how do they do this?
How does Google get my information?
The main way Google knows you’re you is through your Google Account, which is linked to Google Drive (Sheets, Docs, Slides and Drive cloud storage), Gmail, Chrome, Google Voice, Google+, YouTube, Waze, etc., to name a few. You also contribute data by how you interact (or don’t interact) with Google Adwords in search and in web content. Then there are the 30-50 million websites and apps that use something called a tracking pixel to contribute your pageviews, actions and behaviors to something called Google Analytics. Your digital persona grows the more you use Google products to search for stuff, read and send email, browse the web, use apps, and especially if you own an Android mobile device.
Because if you’re one of 1.4 billion Android users, Google collects data on your app purchases and use, your GPS location over time, your voice searches, and other mobile behaviors. And with Google Photos built right in and on by default, connected to that new kick-ass mobile camera, Google gets your pictures and videos too.
Creeped out yet?
It’s clear that Google has the unprecedented potential to gather a complete picture of who you are, what you do, where you go, what you can see, and even what you can hear. Keep in mind that these are all actual behaviors, so without getting too metaphysical, these are the things that make you who you are — as opposed to who you think you are, or who you’d like to be. So, wait for it, Google just might know you better than you know yourself.
Ok — then what?
Can I see what Google knows about me?
Yes you can. Google has made all of the data (you can stop rolling your eyes now — all the data that they admit to collecting) available via a set of secured websites. Here’s a handy list, from the specific, to the big data dump — Google Takeout — which, depending on how long you’ve been a Google consumer, can take hours, even days to return results.
1. Activity History (So much more than search.)
You may (or may not) be surprised to know that much (possibly all) of your search and browsing activity is stored by Google. This includes any embarrassing searches and browsing history you may have deleted from your browser. What?! Yes. It’s all still there, it’s searchable, and you can access it. And that’s not all. Google also includes several other activity types into a single timeline view. And if you look closely, Google does have a little button on the top left that will allow you to delete portions or all of this activity history. Thanks Google! That is so not evil of you.
Check it out here.
2. Google AdWords Profile
Google AdWords never sent you a survey or pried with any direct personal questions — they didn’t have to. All your web and mobile activity sent signals that they used to build a profile to help them decide which ads to show to you, and how much your attention is worth. This includes your age, gender, location, income, and other demographic data. And, just like above, you can view and even update your AdWords profile.
Here it is.
3. Location History
If you have Location Services turned on on your mobile device and you use Android and/or Google Maps/Waze, then you’re leaving a GPS trail everywhere you go. And it just got harder — for Android users anyway — to prevent Google from having this information. Now the only way to keep this information to yourself is to delete Google Maps and Google Play, or kill all Location Services entirely in settings. Google Maps makes sense, but Google Play? Yep. Google Play shares your location information with third-party apps via an API, so even without maps, that information is collected and available to Google and third-party apps. But it’s OK, because you can view your activity on a Google Map.
See your squiggly trail here.
4. Audio History
Technically, this was already revealed in #1 above with the activity history, but your Audio History deserves a special mention. Audio history accumulates when you use the microphone to do a search. Never used this feature? Then you may only find crickets and tumbleweeds. But if you’ve used voice search, then you’ll find your history here, you can listen to the recordings of your voice, and see the text Google took from each voice recording. In a searchable database. So, if you’ve ever said “OK Google” and had an app or device respond, then you’ll have fun — or be horrified — with this one.
Rewind and press play.
5. Device History
If you have Android, then Google has all your app data, contacts, and details on your current and past devices. The company knows what apps you are using, and who you communicate with. True to form, Google gives you access to what they say they know about your devices at another great searchable website.
Say… looks like you upgrade devices every 1-2 years.
If it’s my data, can I download everything and view it on my computer?
You can. Google Takeout lets you choose from list of about 30 data sources to generate a compressed archive of everything. You can get a link to the archive emailed, or you can have it saved to Dropbox.
Google Takeout was created by the Google Data Liberation Front in 2011. This is a team at Google whose mission is to give users access to as much of the personal data Google collects as possible (what is meant by as possible is unclear). So Takeout, and many of these history searching tools have apparently been available for years, but very few people look for or make use of them.
Here is the list of 26 services and sources currently available in Google Takeout:
Note: For those who have had a Google account for some time (like me), and especially for Gmail and Android users, generating an archive can take hours, even days.
Now how do I prevent Google from getting more of my data?
Good question, simple answer: don’t use Google products — including YouTube. If that sounds a little severe to you, here are some specific ways to limit and control what data you’re sending to Google.
- Log out of any Google accounts for all apps or services. This solution is a bit of a mixed bag — it stops Google from getting your data, but Google also protects its interest in you by blocking third party web sites from certain tracking. So take Google out of the mix, and you send more of your search behavior to websites you access through search.
- Use incognito browsing on all web browsers, especially Google Chrome. This creates a browsing window that ensures that all behavior and cookies expire when the window is closed. But remember: If skip step #1 above in an incognito window, you’re still sending data to Google.
- Turn off location services on Android and iOS devices to prevent location data from being sent. Again, Google sends location information via API to Google Play apps, so you have to turn this off for the entire device.
- Delete any Google apps from your computers and mobile devices. If you’re not confident that your settings changes are enough, then the only thing left to do is to delete any and all Google apps from your devices. You may be surprised how many that really is. The complete list of all 50 of them can be found here.
- If you’re looking for a middle path, most Google apps and services allow you to to have some ability to limit data capture in app and service settings. So check the settings.
So, like, who cares? Do you?
Among people I’ve since surveyed in a highly unscientific poll, there seems to be three general schools of thought about the degree to which what we do and who we are are tracked: couldn’t care less, concerned, and fatalistic. Where you fall on this spectrum will depend in part on what these three words mean to you: Privacy, Choice, and Control. Here’s what they mean to me:
Privacy to me means that there are some things that corporations shouldn’t know about me. Choice means that I get to decide which corporations get my information, and how much each corporation knows about me. Control means that I own my data, can choose who gets what and how, and that I can change my mind.
In the Google business model, information about what’s collected from us is more or less available. So we can choose to be informed — a good first step. But we need to make that decision up front, because unless we consciously, manually opt out, using Google products means implicitly agreeing to share our data. (And even then, there is only so much we can withhold without eliminating the product all together). So Google gives us the illusion of control, and even then, control in this case can mean being willing to either use a competitor’s service and give them our data, or not benefit from the many modern conveniences of an Internet connected world. And if we feel this choice reduces our quality of life, is it still a choice? Have we become so reliant on convenience?
That may be, as many of us keep exchanging private information for a friction-free experience. Those that do see that privacy, choice, and control as barriers to getting more of what we want — free services. We become conditioned to feeding a loop: the more we share, the more we’re recognized, and the more we’re recognized, the more our digital world reflects what we care about. This creates a sense that the world looks like me, and I can trust that world with more of my information. The loop runs on, and the opportunities to get off this hayride are fewer and farther between, with switching costs mounting with every new service we log onto.
Privacy, choice, and control. How important are these to you? Ultimately, the only one who can answer this question is you. But if you’re in the concerned column, know that you are not alone.
Google is a big deal, but they aren’t the only ones building a data-based definition of us. Next, I’ll take a bite out of what Apple tracks, and see whether theres an iSelf looking back at me.