How Much Does Google Really Know About You?

Matt Smith 17-06-2014

Google is a technology giant that provides a huge variety of services, many of which are free. Gmail, Google Drive and Google Hangouts can be used without paying a dime. Instead, pay by providing information about yourself, which Google can use for advertising. Though it started in search, the lion’s share of the company’s profits come from ads.


You’ve likely noticed this already. Search for a new car and suddenly, as if by magic, ads from local car dealers begin to appear. But how much does Google really know about you, and should you be concerned? The answer may surprise you.

Your Internet Trail

Google’s most obvious and transparent tracking can be found in Google Web History, which tracks your past searches on all devices where you’re registered with your Google account. Web History is supposedly beneficial to users because it allows Google to tailor future search results to your preference based on your past history, but a log of your searches is also quite useful to marketers. And, if anyone manages to snoop on your account, it could become a privacy issue.

Less transparent, but equally common, is Google’s history of the pages you visit, which occurs whether you’re logged in to a Google account or not. This is accomplished through the use of tracking cookies What is Tracking Cookie? All You Need To Know. Read More as well as information derived from AdSense and Analytics Create A Killer Website Analytics Dashboard With Google Core Reporting API Would you like to just publish a site and run it blindly, or would you like a full-featured, functional dashboard that shows you what's going on with the site at all times? Read More . Google can learn what sites you frequent, in what order you visit them, how long you spend on them, and much more.


The profile built from this information isn’t yours, in the sense that it’s based on information like your I.P. address, monitor resolution and browser plugins instead of your name and address, but it still puts together a unique profile of your activities and preferences which is then used to display relevant ads. If you have a Google Profile you can view this information by going to Google Ad Settings, a page which also lets you opt-out of specific types of ads or manually change your preferences (if you feel like helping Google profile you). You can also use EFT’s Panopticlick  [No Longer Available]tool to see the information used to create your digital fingerprint.


YouTube is also an important part of the trail you leave behind. The world’s most popular video site keeps track of your viewing history, your subscriptions and your searches to augment Google’s understanding of you. All of this history is viewable in Google Dashboard – by you or anyone else with access to your account.


There’s not much about your online activity that remains outside of Google’s hands. Even supposedly private browsing modes, like Google’s Chrome, don’t entirely protect you. Only more advanced measures, like VPNs CyberGhost VPN Review: Why This Top VPN Is Worth Your Time Looking for a comprehensive VPN? CyberGhost VPN offers all kinds of benefits: anonymous surfing, unblocked streaming, and more. Read More and the Tor network Really Private Browsing: An Unofficial User’s Guide to Tor Tor provides truly anonymous and untraceable browsing and messaging, as well as access to the so called “Deep Web”. Tor can’t plausibly be broken by any organization on the planet. Read More , have the potential to shield your privacy.

Google+ Your Info

While Google’s tracking efforts are incredible, the advent of Facebook revealed there was an even easier way to grab user data; just as them. Facebook has encouraged hundreds of millions of people across the globe to give up information Google collects through complex algorithms and databases.



And so we have Google+. Your user profile is exactly that – a profile of you, which can be used to better target advertisements. Entering your date of birth, occupation, interests and location provides more data points for Google to feed into its calculations. The same is true of the contacts you make, the messages you post, and the photos you upload.

No Such Thing As Private Gmail

Of course, users of Google+ likely know what they’re getting into. Users continue to sign up for Facebook, which has displayed ads for years, with no apparent qualms. There’s no reason to expect Google+ to be different, and the information it collects isn’t particularly insidious. In short, users don’t expect social networks to be private affairs.

You may, however, be surprised to hear that your Gmail account is not cordoned off from Google’s data collection. On the contrary, its introduction has provided the company with a wealth of information that’d otherwise be unobtainable. Google mines your inbox for data that might indicate your preferences. The company also can compare information found in your email with other publically available information to gain a better understanding of you.



For example, keen observers noticed that Google was using data collected via Gmail to spot users who were signed up with competing social networks. Once spotted, those users received a message suggesting they connect the competing social network’s account with your Google account, which in turns gives Google access to data stored by the other social network.

This presumably includes Chat, as well, since it’s covered by the same terms of service. Speaking of which, all of that chats that you’ve conducted through GTalk are saved in Gmail, a fact users often forget because Chat history is not displayed by Gmail’s menu bar until the “more” tree is opened.

You Own Your Google Drive Files, But Google Can Still Read Them

Whether Google similarly mines documents in Google Drive is not clear. Presumably the same terms of service could be applied, given the company’s unified privacy policy, and the techniques used to conduct such a search is unlikely to be much different from that used to mine Gmail. However, at this time Google has not confirmed or denied mining Drive data.



There was some drama over Drive’s security How Secure Are Your Documents In Google Drive? Read More because the company’s terms of service provide Google the right to “use, host, store, reproduce, modify or create derivative works.” However, the company’s ToS also says that users “retain ownership of any intellectual property rights.” In short, Google can’t steal your content outright – but this legalese does provide the company wiggle room to read your data at will if it chooses to do so.

Android Is Watching You, Too

Much of your Internet trail can be tracked no matter what device you use. PC, tablet, smartphone – it doesn’t matter much, particularly if you have a Google account which, if you’re using an Android device, you almost certainly do. Your browsing activities can be tracked much as they are when you use a computer.


Android owners also open themselves up to location tracking, which occurs if you turn on location data when setting up your device or installing a new app. This obviously provides some very useful data that can indicate not only where you live but also your habits and the locals you frequently visit. You can view the information Google has on you with the Location History GoogleLocationHistory: Track Your Location History Read More tool and you can even delete your history, if any, though it’s not clear if doing so scrubs it from Google’s internal database.

Another area of concern is Android’s backup service. Though useful, the information stored by the service includes wireless networks, complete with passwords, and data from some third-party apps. All of this is stored on Google’s servers, which means it could be obtained by hacking Google itself, by court order from a government agency, or by anyone who obtains access to your account and uses it to set up a new Google device.

Your Google Digital Shadow Is Complete

Taken as a whole, the information Google collects about users is shockingly complete. The company can mine your emails and Drive documents, track your browsing history, track the videos you watch on YouTube, obtain your WiFi passwords and much more.

None of this is meant to be insidious, of course. Google’s interest is serving ads, and in this sense an accurate profile might be perceived as a boon; if you’re going to see ads, they might as well be ones that interest you. The reveal of the NSA’s PRISM program Who Is Fighting On Your Behalf Against The NSA And For Privacy? There are several Internet activism groups who are fighting on your behalf for privacy. They are doing their best to educate netizens as well. Here are just a few of them that are incredibly active. Read More , however, has proven that data collection is always a privacy issue because there are organizations that can compel data from those who hold it, either through legal finagling or by force.

What did you find out when you visited Google Dashboard, and what do you think of the company’s profile on you? Let us know in the comments.

Related topics: Browser Cookies, Google, Online Privacy.

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  1. Tyler
    October 25, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    Just switched from Google to DuckDuckGo after taking a deeper look into this. Planning on changing to entire different services away from Google.

  2. oti
    September 3, 2017 at 11:54 am

    how ti find a hidden phone in the house, it make me sick

  3. Tinkicker
    September 23, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    So far I'm using DuckDuckGo for all my searches and Privacy Badger and Ghostery for ad blocking. Ghostery allows MAJOR customization of what you're shielded from.
    But what's a good anonymous email service? Who knows what idle comment you make in conversation on Gmail might get you targeted by...a targeting system.

    • ed
      July 14, 2017 at 3:11 pm encrypts all incoming and outgoing email

    • AverageJoe
      July 6, 2018 at 7:15 pm

      Hello, I use Fastmail at 10 bucks per year. Their servers are in Amsterdam and private from government and google/FB searching. However, you should be aware that when you use a private email provider, if your mail conversation goes to a gmail user, google tracks every detail between the two of you. My understanding is if they have enough of a shadow profile on you (as a non user) you could receive ads based on the email content. My Dad was on gmail and when I mentioned to him I was buying and old GMC truck, he started getting GMC ads. I got nothing myself, largely as I do not use any google services, but mostly due to blocking google server in my hosts file. This is very difficult as they have massive amounts of servers and they also change these to prevent blocking. They are the world's largest and richest monopoly and no one controls them. The USA government's sites would fail if google went down as they are 100% dependant on google.

  4. android underground
    June 23, 2014 at 10:13 am

    Get adblock for chrome and firefox, adaway for android, block (you can still facebook through, and anything that ends with,,,,,, and

    Now you've reduced tracking by 90%. Bonus: you've reduced your risk of getting infected by malware that hitches a ride on bad ads.

    Don't feel bad about MUO's business model. If they really believe they deserve your ad views, they shouldn't use your clicks on lifehacker to tailor ads on MUO.

  5. Clayton Decker
    June 23, 2014 at 4:24 am

    I really do not see why this is such a big deal. The only way Google gets your data is if you give it to them! If you don't want Google to have your data, just don't use their services. But really, what does it matter if somewhere on a Google server, it knows that a certain browser likes to see more ads on, say, gardening, than home improvement. After all, I'd rather see content I'm actually interested in! And I really doubt Google employees have any interest in this type of data. And on the issues with NSA and other government data mining, that shouldn't be blamed on corporations. That needs to be shut down!

  6. Omar A
    June 23, 2014 at 4:17 am

    If you want to know more about your kids or get them diagnosed, don't go to a therapist.
    Go to Google, they know every thing about your child, what they watch, read and play, where they go, who they meet, what they dress, drink and eat :D
    and with a little bit of machine learning and data analysis, they will tell you what he/she thinks of right now..

  7. Robert B
    June 21, 2014 at 1:41 am

    Every time I see an article about privacy and the ensuing debate that follows from all the people who post comments makes me laugh. If any person actually thinks that anyone has any privacy or by some mysterious spell can get it back are either insane or living in a fantasy land. The word Privacy and all that it used to mean is as extinct as the Dodo Bird. The only people who have any privacy are the ones who have never owned a computer, cell phone or tablet nor have ever used the internet. Probably the only ones that fit this bill are hermits living out in the wilderness some place and never goes into town. If you have owned any of these items and have subscribe to Cable TV, an internet service etc etc, then you HAVE NO PRIVACY. The last time I probably had any real privacy are the years I was alive that predates the PC which is way back in the 70's. Trying to keep or get your privacy back is like the proverbial Dutch boy trying to stop a leak in the dike with his finger, it can't be done! So stop worrying about it cus there ain't nothing you can do about it cus its GONE!

    • John Fitzgerald
      September 25, 2014 at 10:26 am

      @ Robert B and the rest of you who believe privacy is unattainable or even needed.

      The constitution does not have the word "privacy" in it because the founding fathers could not have conceived of the world we live in today. IF they had been able, they would have created much stronger privacy guarantees. We should have a law that requires us to opt in for anyone to collect any information on us. The rapidly increasing loss of privacy is going to have more serious consequences than it already has within the next decades. I would argue that we cannot have democracy without privacy.

      You can at least minimize your privacy loss. I live in one of the largest cities in the world. I take no mail where I live - no one has that address besides my closest family. I use ZERO Google products. I use a computer that does not have my real name attached, same for my Windows phone. I use Firefox with script blockers that I manage as needed. I have zero subscriptions or utilities in my name. I have no assets in my name either, for that matter, including my car.

      I am a law abiding citizen, pay my taxes, own my own business, and manage to keep my life pretty private. If you knew my name and tried to find me, you couldn't. And neither can Google.

  8. J.J.
    June 20, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    For U.S. citizens: WAKE UP!!!!
    Do you respect the Constitution? Or know the Fourth Amendment: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects...shall not be violated..."

    That is the very definition of privacy. In the past, to conduct surveillance a court order was required. Today's technology makes it too easy - but all the more reason to be ever vigilant. If your freedoms were taken all at once, there would be a strong and immediate backlash. But when taken slowly and in small degrees, the masses don't protest. Rather, they will succumb and later wonder what happened.

  9. Perry
    June 20, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    You should not expect anything different when you use a FREE service. And NOTHING is private anymore. Google yourself and see how much you've paid in property taxes. Your free credit report know which loans are outstanding.

  10. Marc de Piolenc
    June 19, 2014 at 5:16 am

    What really irks me is the linkage that I'm seeing. Every Google search that I do shows up in ads displayed on Facebook, and books that I looked at on Amazon, but didn't buy, also show up on Facebook.

    • Clayton Decker
      June 23, 2014 at 4:26 am

      Well I'd rather see ads I'm interested in than see random stuff that I have no use for.

  11. Eduard L
    June 18, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    Honestly, what the heck do you people expect? Google is huge in terms of everything and has many products => people use those Google products => Google stores and has access to the information you enter while using its products. It's perfectly normal that they have access to my files and emails, or else they wouldn't be doing their job well.

    I also agree with @Marcus Gabilheri, it's good that they do this. Why wouldn't you want them to use all data they have on you, to give you a better internet experience? Do you really believe that a person at Google sits in front of their computer and goes through your emails and whatnot? That's preposterous! This is a new kind of paranoia people have regarding this matter.

    • Clayton Decker
      June 23, 2014 at 4:29 am

      Right on!
      If you want to use their free services, you are agreeing to their terms, so my advice to these paranoid people, stop whining already, and don't use it if you don't agree with it!

  12. Dick
    June 18, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    I still think they are not smart enough. After buying a certain product on the net they keep advertising with the same product for month! Pretty stupid!

  13. M.D.
    June 18, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    "I that don´t have stuff to hide"

    I admire this kind of people for their naiveness or ignorance, such opened to the Governments and big Corporations gathering and analyzing their personal information! However, one day they eventually could do something wrong or it could happen just a little error that should worry them, and then they don't deserve to keep it private anymore.

    The nothing-to-hide argument is everywhere, but when you make this questions:
    "Can I see your credit-card bills for the last year?"
    "If you have nothing to hide, then that quite literally means you are willing to let me photograph you naked? And I get full rights to that photograph—so I can show it to your neighbors?"

    You often attempt to refute the nothing-to-hide argument by pointing to things people want to hide. But the problem with the nothing-to-hide argument is the underlying assumption that privacy is about hiding bad things.

    please read this chronicle:

    • James Bruce
      June 19, 2014 at 4:38 pm

      Reductio ad absurdum ( is a bad way to argue, so I wont respond to the naked picture thing.

      But beyond that nonsense point - if a company offered me a service that checks my credit card history for possible savings; or had a service to analyse those in some way that would benefit me - then yes, I would let them see my credit card bills for the past year. In fact, I already do with a Tesco credit card - in return for seeing everything I buy and using it to tempt me with shopping offers, I get 1% cash back on everything, and coupons for things I actually buy regularly. Silly me, giving up my privacy!

  14. Matthew Arntzen
    June 18, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    I'm a Veteran - the Fed's have my DNA on file. Not much left but my data right?

  15. Marcus Gabilheri
    June 18, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Honestly I don't care about the data collection. I believe that is actually GOOD that they collect this data. The only people that worries about all the NSA mining and data collection are people that have stuff to hide. And what if their machines ready my e-mail? It doesn't matter they are machines and all they do is target advertisements that I don't see (Thanks AdBlock). In exchange I get good and reliable products from Google. So yes, I'm OK with sharing all my data with them.

    • Phil
      June 19, 2014 at 9:32 am

      Criminals love how easy it is to profile you. I don't believe anyone on the planet "has nothing to hide." You do use the bathroom don't you?

      The issue of privacy has become so complex most people have no idea how much the world has changed.
      It is not just about targeting ads to you.
      It is about:
      Identity theft.
      Breaking in your home - easy to know when no one is there.
      Your medical records - this can affect insurance, loans, employment...
      Your profile mistaken for someone else, say a criminal who has a lot to hide.
      Whatever anyone can do using this information to take from you.
      And that is as broad reaching as human imagination.

  16. hohum
    June 18, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    so Google will finally learn the truth about me. I am perhaps the most boring schmuck that ever lived. I'd rather have ads aimed at what I want to see, but remember: NEVER give your correct birthday to companies that don't need it - it's just none of their business - all they care about is your demographic, so keep your ID stuff vague.

  17. Bob Knob
    June 17, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    Please please please proofread your articles before posting.

    • Larry
      June 19, 2014 at 12:35 am

      It is a well known fact that writers cannot proofread their own articles. We humans tend to see what we want to see so it is easy for us to miss typos in what we just wrote. Also, if we really do not know the correct spelling of a word or the correct meaning of a word, no amount of re-reading is going to change that.

      What I expect from publications such as makeuseof, eWeek and other similar newsletters is a degree of professionalism that I would not expect from a personal blog. I believe that this professionalism should include the services of editors and proofreaders to help maintain the quality of the publication. So I agree that article should be proofread but the responsibility does not lie only with the author.

    • Josephus
      June 19, 2014 at 2:24 pm

      "It is a well known fact that writers cannot proofread their own articles." That's not true. I do it all the time.

    • Really?
      June 29, 2014 at 10:40 pm

      No it's actually a scientifically proven claim that it is often much easier spotting other's writing errors than your own.

  18. dragonmouth
    June 17, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    "None of this is meant to be insidious, of course."
    Of course. And the check is in the mail.

    Whether the intent is insidious or not, the fact remains that Google collects and SAVES all this data. One of these days the intent may become insidious and by then Google will have collected petabytes of data it, or the NSA, can mine.