Google: Just what does the search engine know about us?

Even as you search Google, it turns out, Google is also searching you

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The Independent Tech

According to Google, I am a woman between the ages of 25 and 34, who speaks English as her primary language and has accumulated an unwieldy 74,486 emails in her life.

I like cooking, dictionaries and Washington DC. I own a Mac computer that I last accessed at 10.04pm last night, at which time I had 46 open Chrome tabs. And of the thousands and thousands of YouTube videos I have watched in my lifetime, a truly embarrassing number of them concern (a) funny pets or (b) Taylor Swift.

I didn’t tell Google any of these things intentionally, of course. I didn’t fill out a profile or enter a form. But even as you search Google, it turns out, Google is also searching you.

This isn’t exactly new news. Google has, since 2009, published a transparency tool called Dashboard, which lets users see exactly what kind of data the internet giant has on them and from which services. And the issue of data collection has provoked renewed anxiety of late, perhaps spurred by recent investigations into personal data and search engines in Europe and Asia, as well as the high-profile hacking of celebrities’ personal data and the shadow of last year’s National Security Agency (NSA) revelations. According to a recent survey by the consumer research firm Survata, people care more about Google accessing their personal electronic data than they do the NSA, their boss, their parents or their spouse.

“Google knows quite a lot,” says Ondrej Prostrednik, the author of a recent Medium post about Google data collection that has begun making the Reddit rounds.

“People outside of Google can only guess. But it is important to realise that we are the ones giving them all the data they know,” he says.

Prostrednik is, perhaps, an unusual face for the Google surveillance crusade. The 25-year-old web designer lives in Bratislava, Slovakia, and has a graduate degree in European affairs. But since April, he’s been working on a little-known start-up called Cloud Fender, which syncs user documents across multiple cloud-based storage systems. The job necessarily involves a lot of data and a lot of pondering about where and how that data is stored.

Late last week, Prostrednik compiled a list of all the places where Google users can see their personal results. His list promptly flew to the top slot of Reddit’s wildly popular tech forum. “They know everywhere I’ve been every day for several years,” one user observed. “I do find it very interesting, but it’s also very scary because I don’t doubt it’s possible to hold this information against me at some point.”

In all probability, that’s true! (Courts are already working with less.) But it’s not that any of this is a secret, necessarily. In fact, you’ve signed off on Google’s tracking, whether by signing up for a Google service or opting in on an Android phone. The startling thing is that we forget that all this information is being stored, for ever, in one centralised place. The small, ordinary act of sending an email or making a search or looking up directions may not seem revelatory, in and of itself. But when you compile all those thousands of disparate emails, searches and directions over time, which Google does, you end up with something far more intimate; something not too far removed from a detailed portrait of your life and interests.

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An undated handout photo provided by Google on 19 October 2012 shows rows of server racks in the Google data center in Pryor, Oklahoma. (EPA/GOOGLE HANDOUT)

Consider, for instance, the Google services you probably use on a daily basis. There’s search and email; maybe you also use Chrome, Google’s internet browser, to access the web.

If you have an Android phone, that device may log your location and velocity data. If you have a YouTube account, Google knows not only what videos you upload, but which you watch, too. There’s Google Maps, Google Play, Google Voice (if you use it to transcribe your missed calls). Between Google Contacts and Chat, the site has a pretty good idea who you’re friends with. And while browsing data is aggregated differently than information from Google services, if you visit sites running Google Ads or Google Analytics software, Google also knows what you look at and what you click. According to one report from UC Berkeley’s School of Information, Google can track user behaviour on 88 per cent of all internet domains.

Simply put, there are very few corners of modern life that Google doesn’t touch.

Let’s look at a fairly standard case study. Today is Tuesday and I’m starting to think about what I’m going to get up to this weekend. I’ll probably Gchat a friend and ask if she wants to grab dinner. After that, I’ll Google a couple of restaurant options, check out their menus and eventually settle on a spot for dinner. I’ll email my friend to confirm. And when the appointed date arrives, knowing my sense of direction, I’ll probably use Google Maps to figure out how to get there.

Check it: that is an utterly ordinary process that millions of people go through millions of times a week. And during the process, Google gets not one, not two, but five data points on me. (More, perhaps, depending on how long I took clicking around for restaurants.)

None of this is malicious, per se. It’s just the necessary consequence of one company providing such an incredible range of services; of becoming so inextricably embedded in the lives of, as a Google statement put it in 2009, “hundreds of millions of people... around the world. We are very aware of the trust that you have placed in us, and our responsibility to protect your privacy and data,” it said.

In that vein, Google does give users some tools to limit how much data it can collect. You can turn off the tools that track your personal search history and that sync your Chrome use between computers. You can also opt out of interest-based ads – those vaguely creepy messages that invite you to buy a camera after you’ve just received an email on the subject.

But if you want to avoid Google’s gaze entirely, some more radical lifestyle changes may be in order – like, maybe consider quitting the internet and moving into the woods.

Just make sure you bring lots of survival guides with you. In case of emergency, there will be no Google search.

A version of the article appeared in The Washington Post

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