The majority of us use Google. It opens up the Internet, lets us explore and learn. It helps us expand our minds. And in return, it’s collected information about you.
That much, we know. It’s common knowledge. A phrase that has quite recently become everyday is: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” It’s not always true, but when it comes to Google, there’s more than an element of believability.
Google isn’t providing all of those free services out of the goodness of its heart.
Naturally, the amount Google knows about you depends on how much you throw out onto the web and how much you actually use that search engine.
It’s easy to be paranoid too. So what does Google actually know about you?
You Are A Demographic
When it boils down to it, Google is a business and businesses need to know their customers. This means you’re slotted into a demographic slot: basically, that’s your gender and age.
Businesses build profiles of their target market; search for a publication’s writer’s guidelines/media kits, for instance, and you’ll likely find a document which details who a journalist should aim their piece at. Rather depressingly, demographics are ranked, so one classification is more important to aim for than others. The New Yorker even sets out kits for print, web and tablets, and the amount of information they know about their readers is astonishing.
In the UK, The Sun newspaper claims to reach over 6 million readers a day, 32% of whom are classed as ABC1. This, for most, is the key demographic, encompassing upper and lower middle classes; their occupations are typically high-earning – and that’s what makes them so important. Disposable income makes them perfect for prospective advertisers.
That’s why Google wants to know about you: to tailor adverts to your needs, to tempt you in, to make you interested in their promotions.
Your Interests Are Google’s Interests
This is where it matters.
Much of this depends on if you have a Google account and if you’ve activated the Web History. This tracks what you search for on any device you’re logged in on.
You don’t need an account for Google to know your interests and hobbies, though. Your computer stores cookies; details of what sites you’ve been on in order to retrieve data for when you go on that website again, load it quicker and make it more relevant. If a site only allows you to view a certain number of articles for free per day, it relies on cookies to tell it how many you’ve browsed.
Google uses this information to get to know you better. It knows what sites you go on (just open up Chrome and your most frequented sites will be listed), how long you spend on each, what links you click on (used to determine an article’s relevance to your search), and even your attention span, factored in by your scrolling and the amount of time you peruse a page.
Why do they do this? For advertising, of course!
It’s for your convenience, yes, but it’s also so they can make more money from you.
Google Knows Where You Live
Google sent a big van around your street and photographed where you live. It’s doubtful you missed that happening. It’s likely you’ve gone onto Google Earth and found your own house.
But that doesn’t mean they know where you live in particular. Well, not from Google Earth anyway.
Rather, Google knows where you live from your IP address, a unique code sent from your Internet Service Provider to whatever devices you use to go online through your router. Storing this sort of data means Google can provide location-specific results.
And if you’ve ever used My Location on Google Maps in order to get directions from your home to a shopping centre or holiday hotspot, utilising information like IP addresses, the Internet giant can determine with surprising accuracy where you are in the world.
What’s In Your Gmail
If you have Gmail, you’ve already agreed to Google’s Terms of Service, meaning they can automatically scan your emails for keywords in order to, once more, tailor your search results and ads. These terms were updated earlier this year to read:
Our automated systems analyse your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customised search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.
The NSA can also request this information from Google, supposedly to combat terrorism, as can the UK Government (under the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill). Who knows how many terrorists actually email each other specifically about bombing campaigns?!
When You Use The Internet
This might be an obvious one, but often, things staring you in the face can be easily missed!
Google analyses your search results and draws up trends to ascertain when the best time of the year/month/week/day is to advertise a specific product or service. Weight loss programmes spike around January, for example, when many are feeling guilty about their over-indulgence at Christmas and have taken up New Year’s Resolutions.
General trends can be searched for by anyone using the search engine, but Google can look into specific IPs.
What Can Be Done?
If you have a Google account, head over to the Dashboard to tamper with your settings. It doesn’t stop them collecting data on you, but it can limit what they sell on to third parties.
Otherwise, you could delete your cookies, alter privacy setting on social media, disable personalisation, and most obviously… don’t use Google! Some search engines don’t track you, most notable of which is duckduckgo. You can also use Google itself to find out what it knows about you and take the appropriate steps.
This all depends on how you feel about Google knowing bits and bobs about you. It’s the most used search engine because it’s clear and simple, tailoring information specifically for your needs. The thing that makes it so popular is also what makes it controversial. Before you do anything, you need to ask yourself what is more important to you: convenience or privacy?
Image Credit: Robert Scoble