What does Google know about you?


Google first began as the helpful search engine which endeavored to index the entire web. The company’s previous “Don’t be evil” motto was embedded into its code of conduct during its formative years, way back in the early days of the internet in 1998. The organization took its name from the word ‘googol’ which refers to 10 to the 100th power, or in other words, a stupendously large number.

As the company grew, it moved into other online content areas, including the popular webmail offering, Gmail, the online office suite Google Documents, as well as personal cloud storage courtesy of Google Drive, and navigation with Google Maps.

Google also developed operating systems that grew from Linux roots, including the Android OS used on the majority of smartphones today, and Chromebooks which are based on Chrome OS. All of those smartphone pictures feed into Google Photos, naturally.

Finally, let’s not forget the Chrome browser which is available across many platforms, and boasts over two-thirds of global browser market share as of September 2018. For most users, Google and its products are truly everywhere.

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Data questions

With so many avenues for data collection, Google rapidly acquired a good deal of information on each user. This begs the question: what is the company doing with all this data? And the answer circles back to its core monetization stream, and the personalization of ads, also known as targeted advertising.

This is particularly valuable, as rather than just showing random adverts to random folks, as was traditionally done with television, radio and print advertising, Google can instead target ads at specific users.

This is frequently seen when a user searches for an item, and then for the next few browsing sessions – even on a different device – there are umpteen ads shown for not only the item searched for, but also competing products in that category, with the assumption being that if you searched for that particular thing, then you are a potential buyer for all these products.

In fairness, it should be stated that Google maintains that it does not sell your personal info to anyone, and openly states that this data is collected to personalize ads. Let’s take a look at exactly where the data comes from, and how much data Google collects.

It all starts with search

Google’s data collection begins with its search engine, as this keeps track of the topics you search for. The company then shows adverts relevant to those searches, and furthermore keeps track of which ads users click on to gauge interest, and therefore further target ads. Google then collates a whole list of topics that are relevant to the particular individual.

Also taking data from your mobile, Google builds a comprehensive list of personal info that includes your name, nickname, emails, phone number, birthday, gender, and location.

Reading your Gmail – or not

This is not only about search, but also continues with Google’s webmail offering, with Gmail maintaining a list of all the contacts you send and receive email from. One particularly controversial element here is that the content of the emails sent and received has been analyzed for the purpose of targeting ads.

However, more recently, Google has reportedly stopped scanning user’s emails, although apparently third-party apps still do – for example, an app that integrates with Gmail for the purpose of trip planning.

Other Google services provide further data to collect and analyze. Some are more obvious, such as the text of chats in Google Hangouts. However, others may not be as immediately apparent, such as Google Photos, where data is collected on the people and places tagged, and images are analyzed so that all pictures of dogs or cats can be grouped together, for example. It also goes beyond this, as Google analyzes images using facial recognition tech to determine who is in the picture – and there is already a biometric privacy lawsuit in Illinois based around this.

Google along for the ride

Furthermore, Google uses its popular Google Maps service to collect information via desktop browsers and smartphones. For this service to work, there is some personal data which is required, such as your home and work address to facilitate navigation.

However, it quickly goes beyond this to track not only the addresses searched for, but where users go on a daily basis, including the number of miles driven, and walked, the stores and restaurants visited, and the amount of time spent at each. Google will know, for example, if you stop at a car dealership, and then use this information to serve up car-related adverts.

Those looking to get away from Google Maps, and turning to the popular alternate Waze, should bear in mind that Google owns this outfit as well, and it feeds into the same data set.

This location data is considered accurate enough that in multiple cases police have issued warrants for it to place the accused at the scene of the crime at the time of the incident. You can see the timeline of where you have been here, and your travels have been recorded by the day, going back for years.

Filling in the gaps

Google rounds things out with other services, including Google Calendar, which tracks appointments – so for the convenience of maintaining an electronic Day Runner online, we willingly hand over all of the data pertaining to our social events. Just imagine how valuable it would be to advertisers to know about your upcoming wedding, house sale or that birthday party you are planning.

Add in other information from Google News that knows which stories you look at, and before too long Google knows about your interests, and perhaps elements such as your political affiliation, which is particularly valuable in terms of targeting you for a potential donation. Google Fit is another treasure trove of data, a neat app that can track a user’s activity throughout the day, meaning that Google then knows how active or sedentary an individual is.

Additional data is gathered from searching the documents created in Google’s online office suite, G Suite, and what’s saved to a user’s cloud storage in the form of Google Drive. Google also owns the video streaming site YouTube, and you can bet that the company keeps track of what is looked at, and that also feeds into its database.

In conclusion

While Google has helped to shape the modern internet with its many services, also realize that this has come at the price of personal data, in many more forms than most of us would realize.

Strategies to get around this include opting out of data collection, when possible, and using services other than Google, although in most cases this just gives the data to another tech giant, such as Apple or Microsoft, which is not likely any better.

Without using better strategies, such as surfing with a VPN, and using more anonymous services, there is little to no privacy on the internet.

Jonas P. DeMuro

Jonas P. DeMuro is a freelance reviewer covering wireless networking hardware.