Featured Article – Google: What Do they Know About You?

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To have access to Google’s many features and services, as with other platforms, we need to give some personal information and then sign-in, but have you ever wondered just how much information Google keeps about you and your activities?

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This article looks as some of the many different types of personal information that Google stores, and how you can manage the situation, and reduce any potential risks that you may perceive as coming from your personal data being stored by Google.

Your Personal Data

Many of us accept that certain personal information needs to be stored privately with Google, but you may wish to know which information Google categorises as ‘public’.  To check this, login to your Google account, go to ‘Manage Your Google Account’, click on ‘Personal Info’, scroll down to ‘Choose What Others See’ and click on ‘Go to About me’.  Here you’ll be able to see which information is ‘hidden’ e.g. with a padlock icon, or ‘visible’ with an earth icon.  From here you can also click on ‘Privacy Check-up’ link so that you can manage other aspects of what information is stored about you and your Google-based activities.

‘Data and Personalisation’ Section

When you log into your Google account, go to your account page and click on the ‘Data and Personalisation’ link.  At this point, you will be able to see if your ‘Web & App Activity’, ‘Location History’ and ‘YouTube History’ are switched on or off.  If they in the ‘On’ position on tick-box control, then you can assume that Google is tracking and storing plenty of your data relating to these factors.

Web & App Activity

As the name suggests, this relates to your activity on Google sites and apps, and this also includes your location. The stated reason for collecting this information (with your consent, via the toggle control) is to give you “personalised experiences”.  Within the ‘Activity Controls’ section here you should also be able to see tick-box controls for the tracking and storing of your Chrome history and activity from sites, apps and devices that use Google services, and for including any voice and audio recordings.

You can stop Google from tracking this further by turning off the blue toggle switch in the ‘Activity Controls’ section relating to your Web & App Activity which then gives you the option to ‘pause’ this type of tracking.

If you’d like Google to automatically delete this data either every 3 or every 18 months, you can select the gear icon and choose the ‘Automatically Delete’ option and then choose which timeframe. Once this has been done Google will immediately delete current data that’s older than the timeframe specified by you.  Also, you choose to Delete activity by either Last hour, Last day, All time or a custom range.

Location History

By allowing Google to track your location history, Google can record and display information about where you’ve been with your devices, even if you haven’t been using a specific Google service at the time.

The positive aspects of Google storing this information is that you can get personalised maps and recommendations from Google based on places that you’ve visited, and if you click on the ‘Manage Activity’ link in your location history section in Google, it can be interesting to see where you’ve been on holiday and checked in with your location.  Google lists all of what it calls the ‘confirmed’ places you’ve visited (which Google gives you the option to confirm yourself) and the so-called ‘unconfirmed’ places.

The disadvantage of Google storing (and of you reviewing) this kind of information is that if it fell into the hands of criminals or those you would specifically not want to know where you are the data could be a threat damaging e.g. showing a burglar that you’re away from your home on holiday.  You may also feel personally that the information stored about your habits is a little bit too much like ‘big brother’ or borders on an infringement of your privacy.

You can stop Google from tracking this further by turning off the blue toggle switch in the ‘Activity Controls’ section relating to your Location History which then gives you the option to ‘pause’ this type of tracking.

If you’d prefer Google to automatically delete this data either every 3 or every 18 months, you can select the gear icon and choose Automatically delete Location History, then choose which timeframe. Once this has been done Google will immediately delete current data that’s older than the timeframe specified by you. You can go back over these steps and check that the visual location timeline is empty is you really want to be sure that Google has complied with your request.

Your YouTube History

Google tracks your YouTube search and watch history i.e. what videos you’ve searched for, watched and when, and this is used by Google to show videos at the top of the page when you next visit YouTube that you may be interested in based on your History.  There could, however, be several downsides to this e.g. on a shared computer, not wanting others to see which videos you have been watching, or the suggestions may not be things you are actually interested in at that point in time.

As with the other aspects of what Google stores and tracks, it’s a case of following the arrow next to ‘YouTube History’ link in your ‘Data & personalisation’ section of Google and setting your preferences from there.

Your Purchase History

CNBC research in May 2019 highlighted how Googlemail creates a (difficult to delete) page of your purchase history which it was believed was created by tracking your purchase receipt emails, and perhaps details stored in locations other than the inbox.

Google states in its accounts help section that “Your Google Account includes purchases and reservations made using Search, Maps, and your Assistant” (note that there’s now no mention of Googlemail) and according to Google, the feature is included as a way of organising things “to help you get things done”.  Getting things done, for example, means asking your Google Assistant about the shipping status of a purchase, or asking your Google Assistant to show you your flight reservations, or using Google’s search to ask questions like, “Is my flight on time?”

Deleting From Your Purchases Page

In Google’s help section here https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/7673989 and in the subsection ‘delete your purchases and reservations’, Google provides instructions on how to delete them i.e. sign in to your Google account, go to the Purchases page (for which a link is provided),  view your purchase details and select ‘Remove Purchase’, and follow the on-screen deletion instructions.

Downloading Your Data

If you’d like to download the data from the Google ‘products’ you’ve used, Google lets you do this here: https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/3024190?hl=en&ref_topic=7188671

Beware

Even though Google does appear to allow you to manage most aspects of what data is collected about you and your activities when signed in, there have been suggestions, reports and stories published online that may indicate that you could still be tracked by Google when signed-out.  For example, back in August 2018, An Associated Press report accused Google of recording the locations of its users via their mobile devices, even when they had requested not to be tracked by turning their “Location History” off. Also, some have suggested that cookies have been used to help track YouTube activity when you’re signed out, that Google can use information from Wi-Fi and other wireless signals near your phone to keep tracking you, and that there appear to be some contradictions between Google’s statements on certain privacy issues.

Looking Forward

For many of us, we’d like to have control of our personal data (if we had the time to check it all) and are pleased that there are now laws (e.g. GDPR) to help us to do this, but we’re also aware of the value of personal data to legitimate businesses e.g. for personalisation of services, and in marketing communications which have always been valuable in gaining, retaining, and maximising the value of customers.

Clearly, data security and privacy laws perform an important role of protection, and technology giants, as well as other companies and organisations, need to continue abiding by these laws and it is helpful to allow customers easy access to see and to personally manage what information is held about them both privately and publicly.

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