What Does Google Know About Me?
LFL Veritas thanks Ron Buesing of Certus Technologies for sharing his expertise for this blog post.
Quite frankly, the amount of data that Google collects about people each day is shocking. What’s even more shocking is that the average person has no idea what information they permit Google to collect, who has access to this data, and how this information is used.
To truly wrap your head around what Google knows about you, the first step is to visit Google’s My Activity website. If you log into your Google account on multiple devices, like an Android smartphone and a Chrome desktop PC, that activity is married together.
Google says it’s a place where you can “rediscover the things you’ve searched for, visited, and watched on Google services.”
Google says “your activity helps make your Google experience faster, smarter, and more useful.”
Google also says you’re in control because “you can easily delete specific items or entire topics. You can also change your settings and decide what data gets associated with your account.”
Sounds harmless enough, right? But let’s take a deeper look at what Google knows.
Google Knows Your Location History
Providing location data through GPS is an important function of your devices, which constantly generate longitude and latitude data. Google simply takes that information from your device.
When location tracking is enabled, Google can easily learn where you live, where you work, where you went on vacation, places you visited (restaurants, stores, the gym, friends, and family, etc.), and how much time you spent at each place.
In fact, you can go to the My Activity site and see your full location history with little pins on a map that tells where you’ve been during a specific period of time. Depending on how long you’ve had a Google account or owned an Android or Chrome device, that could be many years.
Google Knows Your Browsing and App History
It’s no secret that web browsers maintain a history of websites visited by the user, and Google keeps track of all apps you download and install. But people tend to gloss over how much that history reveals about them.
Browsing history tells what you search for, what your interests are, what you like to eat, places you like to go, etc. If you use your devices for work purposes, browsing history also tells who and what you’re researching, who your vendors are, and what jobs you might be looking for.
Google also shows your YouTube history and maintains a record of every video you’ve ever watched. If you use voice search and/or a voice assistant, that audio activity is recorded and stored by Google every time you use a microphone.
How to Stop Activity Tracking
You can delete any data that Google has collected when you visit the My Activity website. However, it usually defaults to the last day or hour, so if you want to delete everything, make sure you choose to delete all activity.
You can also pause the tracking of search activity, web and app activity, location history, device information, voice and audio activity, YouTube search and watch history, etc. But you have to do this for all your Google accounts. And you have to be careful that you don’t turn tracking back on the next day.
Have you ever noticed that when you download and install new apps, the app will say it needs access to your device’s location, along with your contacts, photos and other information?
Those apps don’t need that data to function. Basically, you’re saying that you’re willing to provide access to your data is exchange for using those apps. The point is, most people who turn off different types of activity tracking eventually turn it back on so they can use the apps they like.
The Risks Involved
We’re not here to say Google is good or bad. Google offers a number of services and features that are extremely beneficial to businesses and users. Their primary goal is to deliver more targeted ads so advertisers continue to spend money, which often involves sharing your data with third-parties. Also, it’s not just Google that tracks activity. It’s Apple, Facebook and other websites and apps that you use every day.
But it’s important to understand the risk you could be creating when you grant Google permission to collect data when you check that little box next to the “terms and conditions” that nobody ever reads.
No personally identifiable information should be stored or shared on your devices. No sensitive business data, and especially compliance-related data that is protected by industry or government regulations should be stored or shared on your devices. Only use secure business applications and VPNs that have been approved by your IT department for this purpose.
Otherwise, you increase the risk of identity theft, data breaches, and compliance violations.
Again, Google isn’t necessarily the bad guy. But every Google user needs to understand what data is being collected, how to control data collection, and how to use online services responsibly to minimize risk, both personally and professionally.