It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that Google has become an invaluable part of our everyday lives. With over 3.5 billion Google search queries per day (which are usually not lengthier than three simple words), we send plenty of data to this search engine. However, Google is more than a search engine. This is a massive ecosystem of Web services designed to provide tremendous value to our online/offline realm. However, what about the cost? Yes, Google offers its services free of charge, but there’s always some price to pay. And as you’ll see by the end of this article, this seemingly affordable price and this seemingly good deal come with serious implications.
Have you been wondering how Google tracks you? What kind of data does it collect? What is this company doing with all that (incredibly personal) data? Well, I’ll do my best to untangle this purposefully-created mess of misleading marketing messages and hard-to-read privacy policies.
Here’s How Google Tracks You…
If you visit Google’s Safety Center and dig a bit deeper into what the company says there, you’ll see some worrying messages (despite the friendly tone used throughout). You’ll see that Google collects two types of data (or, differently said — it utilizes two different streams of information). These are:
- The information Google collects as you use its services;
- The information you create or provide to Google.
The first group of data flows entirely in the background. As you’re doing your Google searches, using Google Maps on your smartphone, or while watching a YouTube video — plenty is being sent back to the ‘mothership’ and then analyzed. The second group is related to the information you (consciously) provide to Google. For example, this can be your name, passwords, phone number, emails that you receive and send via Gmail, photos and videos you save on Google Photos/Drive, everything that you write or edit by using Google Docs (Sheets and Slides, as well), comments that you post on Google and plenty more. The chances are that you’re using a dozen Google services, without even realizing what kind of data you reveal. So, let’s take a closer look at what different Google services/apps collect in terms of your private data:
- Your Google Profile: Your first and last name, nickname, birthday, gender, your password, email, and your phone number.
- Google Search: Everything you type into the Google search bar, on any device or within any related application/service.
- Google Chrome: Your entire Web browsing history, usernames, lists of permissions, records of the files you downloaded, data saved by Google Chrome add-ons, your location.
- Gmail: Your email messages (sent and received), your purchase history, your contacts (names, email addresses, and phone numbers).
- Google Ads: Ads that you click on; Topics that you’re interested in.
- Google Photos: People and places tagged in your photos.
- Google Fit: Your height and weight, your fitness level, and your fitness goals.
- Google Maps: Places you’ve been, methods of transportation, dates of each travel, places you’ve searched for online or in-app.
- Google Calendar: Your full schedule (past and future).
- YouTube: Videos that you watch and upload, videos that you like/dislike, any comments that you post on YouTube.
- Google News: Topics you’re interested in, every story that you ever read.
- Google Books: Your favorite authors, books that you’ve read and searched for online or in-app.
- Google Shopping: Products you’re interested in, your previous purchases.
- Google Pay: Your financial information including your credit card number.
- Google Assistant: Voice searches, your location. integrations with third-party services.
- Waze: Directions and places you’ve searched for, locations you’ve visited.
It would be close to impossible to list all of the active (and defunct) services run by Google. With this said, it’s also impossible to precisely list all of the data types that Google collects via those services. Therefore, the list found above is just the tip of a massive iceberg — but it can give you an idea of how personal your relationship is with Google.
Here’s How Well Google Knows You…
As you can imagine, Google doesn’t just passively store your personal data. Instead, it actively connects various types of ‘dots’ to create a virtual image of your persona. This includes everything about your past, present, and your future — including your interests, and even your thoughts and deep (maybe even dark) secrets.
Depending on what kind of information you gave to Google in the past, here’s how well this company knows you right now.
- Your personal details (including your appearance): Google knows your name, gender, and your birthday. It also knows how you look like if you’ve used Google Photos before and tagged yourself.
- Your voice: Tried Google Assistant before? Or maybe you’re a proud owner of a Google Home smart speaker? Everything you said to either of these services/products has been recorded. Among other things, Google knows how to recognize your voice.
- Your interests, education, political, and religious beliefs: Have you searched via Google how to donate to a political campaign? Have you inquired online about your local church? Watched political or religious content (or any other type of content) on YouTube?
- Your health status: As helpful as Google Fit can be, this app requires your personal data before it can operate. You input your height, weight, and your daily level of physical activity, and Google Fit can take it from there. This service will collect your daily step count, as well as how far or near you are from your physical goals.
- Your income: Google can analyze your financial information, in addition to creating patterns based on how you spend your money. The search engine knows what kind of items you’re interested in (thanks to Google Shopping), and it can see whether you’ve purchased something after all, or not. By analyzing your money spending habits, the company knows your income status.
- Everywhere you’ve ever been: Google Maps allows you to have a digital map of the entire world in your pocket. However, to take full advantage of this service, you need to provide some information as well. Considering that Google Maps knows where you are, as long as you have your smartphone in your pocket, it collects real-time information about your location. It knows where you’ve traveled, where you plan on traveling, which restaurants, coffee shops, and other kinds of businesses you’ve visited, and plenty more.
- Who your friends are: Depending on the type of phone you use, Google collects your contacts, call logs and even your messages. The company knows who you talk to as well as how often.
- Everything that you like and dislike: Across various apps and services, you can input and send additional information to Google about the things you like (and those that you don’t like). For example, you can ‘like’ books, types of news, topics of interest, YouTube videos, and more. All of this information paints a pretty clear picture of your interests.
- Your plans for the future: Made any travel plans via Google Flights or Google Trips? Searched the Web for specific colleges or courses? Taken a look at various job boards? Maybe you’ve been worried about your health, and turned to the world’s most popular search engine to check your symptoms? Google knows what you’ve been doing as well as what you plan on doing, for sure.
And Here’s How to Protect Your Privacy!
Many of you are probably wondering right now about the state of your Google account. What can be done to safeguard your private data and to stop this company for having such an intimate insight into your everyday life? Well, the good news is that something can be done— and this starts by reviewing your Google Account.
If you click on the provided link, you’ll be taken to a recently redesigned Google Account page, now offering a much better (and somewhat more transparent) view of your personal information and the way it’s used for different purposes. On the left side of the screen, you’ll see the following items:
- Personal Info: This is where you can supply Google with your personal information, like your name, nickname, birthday, gender, and more. Perhaps there’s no need to hide this information from Google (even though you could provide false information instead, if you want to be completely anonymous), but you can stop others from seeing it. Scroll to the bottom of the page, and you’ll see a section titled ‘Choose What Others See’ — which is where you can decide about the public visibility of your personal data.
- Data & Personalization: You can stop plenty of Google services from tracking you. This includes your Web activity, location history, voice logs, device information, YouTube search/watch history, Google Maps activity, and plenty more. Also, make sure to read the fine print, as everything might not be as straightforward as it might seem. For example, Google tracks your location even when you turn off ‘Location History.’
- Security: This is where you can review your Google-connected devices and fine-tune various options related to your security, including your password and the way you log-in. You can also see which apps use your Google account, which passwords you’ve saved via Chrome’s Password Manager, and whether there are any linked accounts.
- People & Sharing: As mentioned earlier, Google saves all your contacts from your phone, tablet, computer, and across other devices. Even though you can’t prevent Google from doing this without severely limiting the use of this company’s products, you can review if you’re sharing something ‘overly’ sensitive.
- Payments & Subscriptions: Finally, this is where you’ll see your financial information, including your payment methods, purchases, subscriptions, and reservations. All of this is saved from your Google searches, Gmail, and other similar services.
One crucial question remains — is it possible to completely stop Google from logging your personal data? The answer is — no. Even if you take various precautionary steps, this company has the right to log many different types of data because you’ve agreed to that. During the process of creating your Google account, you agreed to allow this company to monitor you. The only way to (almost) completely prevent Google from taking advantage of your private data is by deleting your account.
So, I Should Just Delete My Google Account?
Everything said so far relates to different ways Google tracks you via its services. So, does that mean that deleting your Google account will erase you off this company’s records? The answer is — sadly, no. Even though deleting your Google account is one of the most effective ways to stop this company from tracking you, Google has numerous other ways to get your sensitive information, and there’s nothing you can do about that.
As it turns out, Google reportedly bought private banking data in secret. As reported by Bloomberg, Google and Mastercard cut a deal to track retail sales made possible by opening Mastercard’s database to Google and this company’s partners. And you might wonder what the role of these partners is? Well, no one can tell for sure — but we know that hundreds of ‘partner companies’ have access to your Gmail inbox. And if all of this isn’t enough, Google was sued in 2017 for ‘inappropriately’ accessing private medical data.
I’ll Leave You With — Google’s ‘Selfish Ledger’
In the end, I’d like to introduce you to a leaked video named ‘The Selfish Ledger.’ Made in 2016, this video has been created for ‘internal use’ by Google and imagines a future of total data collection. More importantly, it talks about creating a ledger based on the data of your actions, decisions, preferences, and any other data the company has on you. The video asks — What if we thought of ourselves not as the owners of this information, but as custodians, transient carriers, or caretakers? So, do you want to be reduced to ones and zeros that become proof of your existence? I am sure the answer is — no.
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