Google knows a lot about you. It knows when you aren’t feeling well and you want to know what your symptoms could mean. It knows about the ASMR videos you use to lull yourself to sleep and the restaurant where you got takeout last night—and the precise route you took to get there. It knows when and where you’re traveling next, thanks to all of that research you did about your next vacation destination.
Given the growing ubiquity of Google products, it seems plausible that the tech giant could know everything there is to know about you. Here’s how to find out exactly what Google knows, what they might do with that information, and how to increase your privacy on the web.
What does Google know about your online activity?
The more Google services you use, the more information Google can collect about you. Here’s everything Google might know about your online activity.
- Account information. When you create a Google Account, the only information you are required to provide is your name. But you are prompted to add additional personal information, such as your phone number, other email address, birthday, and gender. Entering a phone number for account recovery is one of best ways for Google to link your online behavior to offline behavior.
- Google searches. By default, Google keeps a record of every search you make on its search engine. Your YouTube searches, Google Maps searches, and Google Play searches, are all retained as well.
- Browsing history. If you use Google Chrome as your browser, Google has access to your entire browsing history. You can use Incognito mode to stop Chrome from associating your browser history with your Google account, but it won’t prevent other sites from collecting third-party cookies. The 39 million websites that use Google AdSense also have cookies that track your browsing history, so that you can be retargeted with ads after you visit an advertiser’s website.
- Ad clicks. Google knows when you click on one of its online ads, because that click information is always sent to Google for accounting purposes. This includes ads on Google services and on websites that are part of its vast network of ad partners.
- Purchases. When you buy something on a Google advertiser’s website, that information is often sent back to Google for accounting.
- Audio recordings. If you use Google’s voice-activated assistant, Google Assistant, Google will retain audio data.
- App activity. If you have an Android phone, Google may know which apps you’ve searched for, bought, and used.
- Email. If you use Gmail, Google’s popular email platform, Google also has access to the contents of your inbox, including attachments and drafts.
- YouTube history. Google knows what YouTube videos you’ve watched.
- Your device. Google knows if you’re using a mobile or desktop device whenever you use its online services.
Does Google know your location?
Google has multiple ways to determine and track your location. If you have an Android phone, Google’s capabilities are especially advanced, since you may need to have Location Services turned on to access many useful features, such as the ability to find a lost device or receive automatic weather updates. Additionally, Google has received criticism for tracking Android users’ locations even when Location Services were turned off, by sending information about nearby cell towers to Google.
There are two main ways for Google to find out about your location, no matter what device you’re using:
- IP address. Your Internet Protocol (IP) address is a unique number identifying your device (such as a desktop computer or phone), issued by your internet service provider (ISP). IP addresses are assigned geographically, like phone number area codes, so they’re easily associated with your general location. Any website you visit (including those operated by Google) can collect your IP address.
- Location Services. Also known as Location Accuracy, this feature uses information such as your device’s built-in GPS, information from nearby cell towers, and wireless access point information to provide more precise location information than your IP address. Macs, PCs, iPhones, and Android devices all have some version of Location Services, allowing you to use apps and services like weather, location-based reminders, and maps. Third-party apps and websites (including those operated by Google) can ask for access to Location Services, which allows them to see your precise location.
In 2009, Google introduced a feature called Location History that provides a detailed timeline of every location you visit, including how long you spend at different locations and the exact date and time you were there, so long as you are signed in to your Google Account on that device. Since most people take their phones everywhere, Location History can provide a near-exact record of where you live, work, and hang out—and it’s even been used as evidence in criminal investigations.
Although you can disable the Location History feature, Google can still record your location every time you use one of its apps, watch a YouTube video, or conduct a Google search.
What does Google do with your data?
With so much of your personal information at its disposal, users want to know: What is Google doing with all of that data? Can it be trusted with it? In a recent survey of over 1,000 Americans, 69 percent said they were concerned about Google’s access to their personal data.
The fact is: Google is using your personal data to help its advertising partners sell you things.
Google claims to not sell your personal information to third party advertisers—because in reality, it doesn’t need to. Google is already the biggest advertising platform in the world. When advertisers work with Google, they’re able to tap into the vast amounts of personal information Google collects about its users in the form of ad targeting and retargeting.
While not all of Google’s services use personal data for ad targeting—Google largely considers the contents of your Gmail inbox and paid services like Google Drive off limits, for example—the underlying problems are complexity and lack of transparency.
“It takes an enormous amount of work to find out what exactly Google does with your data,” explains Sridhar Ramaswamy, co-founder of Neeva. “Google has so many services—some of which are ad-supported and others that are not—that it can be confusing, if not impossible, to tell which information is being used to serve ads, and what is being kept private.”
Ramaswamy’s rule of thumb for assessing how personal data may be used is the service’s revenue model. “When it comes to services you pay for, like storage on Google drive, you can be pretty sure that your data isn’t being used to serve ads. For free services, like Google search, your default assumption should be that you are going to be served ads that are targeted to you based on your activity. These ads can be served on any Google property.”
How to view the data Google has about you
Google collates all of the personal information they’ve collected in order to serve you personalized ads into an ad personalization profile. In addition to the information that Google knows about you, such as your browsing habits and location, this profile also contains predictions Google has made about who you are, including your:
- Primary language
- Job industry
- Company size
- Marital and parental status
- Education status
- Household income
- Homeownership status
- Favorite stores
- Interests and hobbies
If you want to know who Google thinks you are, there is actually a way for you to view your ad personalization profile. Here’s how to see it:
Go to Manage Your Google Account > Data & personalization > Ad Personalization > Go to Ad Settings, and then scroll down to see “How your ads are personalized.” You can then click on any one of the categories to learn more about where this information came from. If you haven’t provided Google with this information, it will “estimate” your demographics and hobbies based on its extensive knowledge of your browsing history, search history, and location.
How to turn off ad personalization
To turn off ad personalization on Google sites, follow these steps:
- Go to your Google Account > Data & personalization.
- Under the Ad personalization panel, click Go to ad settings.
- Toggle the button from “Ad personalization is on” to “off.”
To further limit ad personalization from Google’s partners:
- Go to your Google Account > Data & personalization.
- Under the Ad personalization panel, click Go to ad settings.
- Go to “Advanced” and uncheck the box that says “Also use your activity & information from Google services to personalize ads on websites and apps that partner with Google to show ads. This stores data from websites and apps that partner with Google in your Google Account.”
- Visit YourAdChoices.com to opt out of personalized ads from some of Google’s partners.
How to limit Google’s permission to track you
Google collects data about your location, web and app activity, and the YouTube videos you watch. You can control what Google tracks and how long they save this data at myactivity.google.com.
- Pause Location History. By default, location history is turned off. But if you think you may have opted in at some point, you can opt out now. Pausing Location History will delete the precise timeline of your whereabouts that Google has created, but it won’t stop other Google apps and sites (like Google Maps and Search), from collecting your location every time you use their services. To do that, you’ll need to pause Web & App Activity.
- Pause Web & App Activity tracking. Google stores your data any time you use a Google website or app. To opt out of this, simply toggle the switch to the off position. This will give you the option to “pause” tracking and personalization. Pausing does not delete past data.
- Auto-delete Location History. If you want to keep your location history but limit how long it lasts, you can change the auto-delete settings. By default, Google automatically deletes your Location History after 18 months. If this seems a little long to you, you can change this to 3 months under the Location History section.
- Auto-delete Web & App data. By default, Google deletes your web and app activity after 18 months. If this seems a little long to you, you can change this to 3 months under the Web & App Activity section.
Other ways to limit how much Google knows about you
Now that you’ve opted out of Google’s ad personalization and customized how Google saves your web and app activity, you can take further steps to protect your data privacy online.
- Log out. When you’re logged into your Google Account on a desktop while browsing on Google Chrome, your information can become linked to your Google Account, even if you use Incognito mode.
- Don’t use universal logins. When you’re offered the opportunity to log in to a new service using your Google Account instead of creating a new account, remember that anything you do with this account could become part of what Google knows about you.
- Use an alternative search engine. Using a private search engine that values privacy, like Neeva, means your search queries won’t be used to serve ads.
- Use Google alternatives where possible. Part of the reason Google is able to gather so much data about its users is the number or products they use: not just Search, but Google’s browser, Chrome, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Docs, YouTube and more. Basically, the more products you use, the more Google knows about you. If you want to limit this, take inventory of how many Google products you use, and research alternatives.
- Use a VPN. A VPN encrypts your IP address, so that Google and other websites cannot know your general location.
- Clear cookies. If you’re concerned about cookies used to track your web activity, most browsers have an option to clear cookies.
Neeva is the world’s first private, ads free search engine, committed to showing you the best result for every search. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, especially advertisers. Neeva is currently in an early testing phase. You can sign up to be on our waitlist at neeva.com/signup.