"Just Google it."
We've heard and used this phrase so many times it's actually become a cliché, and this demonstrates just how much Google is a part of our everyday lives.
However, the ease with which Google provides us with the information we want to know should give us pause. Providing this information requires us to make tremendous sacrifices to our personal privacy, and we still don't know the wider implications of this development.
On one side of the debate are the people who see the rise of these information giants, mainly Google and Facebook, as symbols of Orwellian censorship and over-the-top state surveillance.
But on the other side, we find people who simply don't care. The convenience and security provided by Google's services is worth the loss in privacy. Which side you fall on will depend on your own personal definition of privacy.
However, to really make an informed decision, it's smart to first look at exactly what Google knows about us, as well as how it collects this information and what it does with it once it has it.
This will allow us to see just how much of our privacy we're giving up and if doing so is worth the sacrifice.
Some Background About Google
Google, along with YouTube, is a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc, one of the largest companies in the world. In terms of website traffic, Google and YouTube rank one and two respectively on the Alexa ranking.
The ubiquity of Google is easy to see in our lives, but consider some of these stats to get an idea of just how big this company is:
In sum, billions of people interact with Google each day, which means Google has information on nearly every person who walks on this Earth. This is significant, but it will seem even moreso when we look more closely at exactly what Google knows about each one of us.
How Does Google Learn About You?
They will collect this data from one of the following sources:
Apps, Browsers, and Devices
Google collects information from the devices you use to access its services. By doing this, Google isn't necessarily collecting information that's specific to you but rather your device.
However, if you use the same devices to access Google services, then this tracking has the same effect as if you were signed in. Google will display ads and other content relevant to your device activity, which is really your activity. The only difference is that this data is not associated to your name or the other personal information you've provided to Google.
In addition to information about your devices, Google also collects data about the browser you're using, as well as the apps you have installed on your browser and other devices, such as your phone and tablet.
If you use the Android operating system, then Google regularly receives updates from your operating system about your device. This information includes device type, carrier name, crash reports, and the apps you've downloaded.
If it's a service provided by Google, know they're tracking your activity. Every click you make using Google products is recorded, and every word you type is entered into their database.
One of the most effective ways Google collects information about you is through its "Google sign-in" feature.
You've likely come into contact this this when signing up for a new online service. You'll be presented with the option to use your Google account to sign up so that you don't need to make up (and remember) a new password and username.
However, when you do this, you're granting Google permission to collect data about you while you're using that service, which it will add to its profile about you.
Again, depending on your point of view, this might not be such a bad thing. Just know that the convenience of using your Google account for everything comes at a cost to your privacy.
If you're using Google Home, then Google is collecting data from you. It does so by recording your personal preferences, and also by monitoring your interactions with the Google Assistant. Yes, this means it's listening to you.
Some are concerned that this means Google can use Google Home to monitor all the verbal interactions that take place in your home, but the company has stated it only processes speech after you speak the words "OK Google." Whether or not you believe this depends on how much you trust Google. No matter what, when you use your Google Home, the tech company is recording your activity and preferences.
What Does Google Do With What it Learns?
Where you stand on the privacy debate will depend quite a bit on what you believe Google does with the information it collects about you.
If you think Google tells the truth, then you might not see their possession of all this data as a big deal. However, if you think Google is cooperating with the government or some other surveillance institution to spy on you, then you might have other ideas.
For now, the notion that Google is a government spy agency remains a conspiracy, so we can only go on what Google tells us it does with the information it gathers.
Here's a rundown of the company version:
According to the company, the primary reason they collect information about you is to "improve their services," and there's no reason to doubt this. Google uses your information to help suggest videos for you to watch, sort emails, respond to messages, connect with relevant people, remember where you took photos, and much more.
Google knows that people use their services because they like them, and in order for people to like them, they need to be personal, which requires the collection of data. As long as Google can maintain this narrative, people will continue to hand over their information.
Google doesn't charge for any of its services, so it needs to make money somewhere else. As you might expect, it does this with advertisements.
Google collects all the information you provide it and creates a profile about you. Then, when you're on a website that serves ads from Google, you will be shown content relevant to you based on the information Google has about you.
So, for example, if you spend a lot of time looking up how to do certain woodworking jobs, you can expect to see ads from companies such as The Home Depot.
Google's ads are surprisingly effective, and the more they know about you, the more effective they are. As a result, it's in Google's best interest to learn and collect as much about you as it can.
To give you an idea, consider that last Google's ad revenue over the years has skyrocketed, reaching \$118 billion in 2018.
Here's a look at how quickly Google has gotten to that number using data from Statista:
Of course, Google makes money in many other ways but in the end, they are in the information business. This is why they are constantly working to learn more about you.
What Could Google Know About You?
Knowing more about how Google collects information about you, it shouldn't be hard to see this massive company has a lot of data about your life.
To fully grasp the scope of the information they have, let's dig a bit deeper and look more specifically at what Google knows about us.
Google is known more than anything as a search engine. Most people use it as their default search tool, and every time you search for something, Google records it.
If you search when logged into Google on Chrome, then Google will be able to attach this search history to you, and it will use this information to offer you its services, mainly delivering you relevant ads.
However, if you access Google without being signed in, or on a device that's not associated with you, then this data just goes into Google's general database about search terms, which it uses to sell Cost Per Click (CPC) advertising and other services.
Much like your search history, what you do on your browser is also recorded in Google's database. The company then uses this information for the same reason as they use your search history.
If you don't want Google tracking your search history, you are welcome to use another browser besides Chrome, but you can also tell Google to not keep this information by adjusting your privacy settings.
Google leverages its connection with YouTube to learn more about you. This is smart, as people tend to use YouTube to watch things that matter to them, providing Google with valuable information about what types of ads would work best.
This one feels a bit like "Big Brother." Google is working to constantly improve its services, and one of these services is ads. So, Google is constantly tracking how you interact with the ads they display so to you so that they can tell advertisers how likely it is you saw their ad and also how effective it was.
Interactions could be as simple as the amount of time you spend on a page, but they could also mean the location of your mouse on the screen. This is scary because it reminds us that there really is someone (something) out there tracking our every move.
Voice and Audio Information
If you use voice commands, or provide Google with any other recording of your voice, they will hang onto what you say and process it so that they can learn more about you.
If you've signed up for Google Pay or have your Google account linked to other accounts where you provide your purchase activity, then Google will be recording this information about you.
People With Whom You Communicate
When there are gaps in the information Google has about you, it will aggregate your profile based on what it knows about the people with whom you interact. It does this by keeping track of who you communicate with.
This could mean reading your emails, looking at your contacts and events, and recording your interactions on various Google social platforms, such as Google+
Activity on Third-Party Services
If a website uses Google's services—which considering the ubiquity of Google Analytics, it's likely it does—then your activity on that site is being tracked and recorded. Whether or not that information gets tied directly to you depends on whether or not you're signed into a Google account on the device you're using.
Ever booked a flight or a hotel and then find it automatically entered on your calendar? Google does this by reading your emails and automatically populating your calendar. It can be very handy, but it provides Google with a lot of information, such as your interests, location, plans, and company.
This is a big one for most people. If you have location services activated on your Google devices, then they are indeed keeping track of where you are in the world.
However, even if you have location services off, Google can still find out where you are. They will use things such as IP addresses, sensor data from your device, and information from nearby infrastructure, such as WiFi access points, cell towers, and Bluetooth-enabled devices.
Google is so good at knowing where you are that you can log into your account and see where you've been in the world since Google first started recording information about you. It's both creepy and interesting at the same time. Check it out:
Messages and Emails
Yes, Google is reading your emails and G-Chat messages however not in the sense that someone from Google is sitting there reviewing what you write. Instead, they are taking the content of your messages and scanning it with their AI to glean as much about you as possible. They're looking for contacts, interests, purchase decisions, etc.
SMS and Phone Calls
If you use any Google service that allows you to make phone calls or send and receive messages, such as Google Hangouts, Google Voice, or Google Fi, then the company will keep track of your telephone log, meaning the numbers you call and who call you, the duration of calls, time and date of calls, etc.
As far as we know, Google does not collect the actual content of these calls, but it wouldn't be unreasonable to doubt this considering just how much other information Google collects about us.
What Does Google Actually Know About You?
Above are all the different things Google "could" know about you. Depending on how you use Google services, as well as how you've configured your privacy settings, Google will have different data on each person.
However, in the spirit of transparency, Google has made it rather easy for you to learn more about the data it collects about you.
Just log into your Google account by clicking the avatar at the top right of your screen, in either Google Chrome or Gmail.
Once in your account, click "Data and personalization," which is the third option on the menu located to the left of your screen. This will bring you to your Google Dashboard, where you can find all the information Google has collected about you.
This will help you determine exactly where you've given your permission to Google to collect data about you, and you can make changes if you want so that your preferences reflect your wishes.
Protecting Your Privacy
Despite the fact that Google's business model depends on them collecting information about you, they make it relatively easy for you to change and update your personal privacy settings.
While in your Google Dashboard, go through each category and check to see if you've allowed Google to collect data. If you haven't, then it will say, "paused." They don't give you an option to completely stop Google from tracking. The company's logic is that its services work better when you provide your data, so eventually you will want to turn this feature back on.
It's also a good idea to go into the various apps you use to see which permissions you've granted. It's possible some of these apps are reporting data back to Google without you knowing it, and you should be able to change this if you so desire.
Another option, at least when using Google Chrome, is to browse "Incognito." You can turn this feature on by clicking the drop-down menu in the top right corner of Chrome. When you do this, Google won't keep track of your browsing history, but what you do while using Incognito mode can still be tracked by your ISP, so don't take this as a license to do something illegal.
An Issue of Trust
Despite keeping so much data on you, and knowing nearly everything about you in the process, Google makes it easy for you to learn what it knows about you, and also to change your settings to increase your privacy.
However, there is reason to be skeptical. Google has lots of information, and they also have lots of money and power, with very little oversight. Google's transparent approach has helped them win over the public's trust, but as we saw with Facebook, this can be quickly lost.
If you find yourself unable to trust Google with this information, and also to honor your privacy settings, then the best thing you can do is limit what information you give out online and avoid using Google's services as much as possible.