How Much Does Google Know About You?
There have been many stories in the last couple of years about privacy issues on Facebook. But fellow tech giant Google actually knows much more about you. Here we offer a rundown of what data Google does and doesn't collect, how that data is gathered, and how to limit what Google knows.
Data Collection Everywhere
It may be easier to start with data Google doesn't collect. It doesn't collect data from business customers who use the enterprise version of its services. Nor does it collect internet traffic data from its Google Wi-Fi home routers. It also no longer uses the content of Gmail messages to determine which ads to display.
What it does collect may surprise you. Google's reach — including its familiar search engine, its Android and Chrome operating systems, and its access to many other sites online — enables it to gather information about you from a wide variety of sources.
As a result, Google knows:
- Every search term you've ever typed into the Google search engine
- Every YouTube (which is owned by Google) video you've ever watched
- Games you play on your phone
- Your online purchasing activity
- Which friends you communicate with
- Which ads you view
- Your location via Location History, Web and App Activity, and through device-level Location Services
According to Axios, "Even those who don't actively choose Google's services still probably have a fair amount of information landing on its servers."1 That's because Google provides widely used ad and analytics tools to other companies.
Google uses all this data about you for two main purposes:
- To make their services more useful — YouTube is a good example of how Google uses your data to help you. The Google website states, "YouTube recommends videos you may like based on what you have watched before and what other people with similar viewing histories have watched before."
- To target ads to interested shoppers — Targeted advertising is the reason you'll see multiple promotions for a product you've viewed online.
Depending on how you look at it, these purposes can be seen as helpful, convenient, bothersome, creepy, or maybe a combination of these adjectives. Experts note that while Google offers free services like Google Docs, Gmail, and YouTube, they aren't really free. When you use Google products, you "pay" with your personal data, which Google then uses to sell advertising to third-party companies. Many users, not understanding this business model, enter into this agreement unknowingly.
However, an article from Wired noted, "Google has…increasingly prioritized building in privacy protections for new services and features early in the development process. Google has also devoted significant resources to developing its Security and Privacy Checkup tools, which walk users through a sort of explanatory checklist of how Google's data controls work and what options are available."2
See safety.google/privacy/data for more about how Google uses your data.
How to Limit Google's Reach
While it may not be possible to entirely eliminate your relationship with Google, there are some steps you can take to minimize it:
Sign out of Google. Check your Chrome browser. Is there a little photo of you in the upper-right corner? That means you're signed in to Google. But you don't have to be. Just click the photo, choose Sign out, then browse as you normally would to prevent your searches being associated with your identity. You'll have to sign back in to do things like read a Google Doc or check your Gmail.
Use another search engine. In particular, Duck Duck Go (duckduckgo.com) allows you to block advertising trackers, keep your search history private, and take control of your personal data.
Change the way you browse. Instead of using Google's Chrome browser, use Firefox or Safari, or use Chrome in Incognito mode (see support.google.com/chrome/answer/95464 to learn how).
Change your phone. Google owns Android, so if you use a phone with an Android operating system there's not much you can do. Google also pays Apple to make its search engine the default on iOS phones, but you can change the default.
See tutorial below for step-by-step instructions for deleting specific actions from Google and disabling tracking in Google Maps.
Europe Legislates Stronger Online Data Protection
Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect in 2018, creating new standards for online privacy. Based on this law, companies must ask for user consent before collecting or mining personal data. That data can include not just personal facts about an individual but also their online habits such as browsing history.
According to NPR, "Companies that violate the new rules face penalties of up to 4 percent of their global annual revenue or 20 million euros (about $25 million), whichever is higher."3 That may be why some tech giants have vowed to extend these privacy protections to all their customers.