Did you know that all of your online activities are tracked? It’s like a video recording of you surfing the Web. All this data is collected by your browser, sites, apps and stored in the cloud.
The silent surveillance
It’s no secret that search engines and services continuously collect data about their users. Every second Google alone receives more than 40,000 requests from users to search for this or that information. You submit your query, and in response, the search engines initiate results.
But there is another process going on in parallel. For every query you make in the search engine bar, there is a continuous battle of advertisers who are willing to pay money to have their sites appear at the top of search results. Any information about you can be monetized after careful consideration of your preferences.
Search engines sometimes know a lot more about you than your closest friends, because many people simply click “Allow” button, thereby entrusting their browser with their most intimate information.
Today, it is increasingly said that Internet corporations store and use personal data in enormous amounts, and Google is no exception. In response to user complaints, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said:
“If you have something that you don’t want to tell anyone about, you probably shouldn’t put it on the Internet at all”.
On the one hand, the Internet has long ago become a necessary tool, and the account is perceived as a personal space. Social networks, maps, the search bar – we consider it all our own. On the other hand, specific services are owned by companies that are interested in using users’ information for their own purposes.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to know the full extent of all the data collected. Every browser, every app, every program, every website tracks our activity and generates its own databases. In this article we will talk about what data Google knows and stores about us.
The key element of “surveillance” is the browser. Follow this link to find out what your Google Chrome browser is storing about you:
By clicking on the link you will open a window where you choose what data about you should be displayed, select the parameters of the archive and send a request. In a few minutes or hours (depending on the amount of information about you) you will receive your archive.
Interesting stuff, isn’t it? That’s how easy it is to get your data about your location, the sites you visit, your photos and contacts, your purchases and much, much more.
Be prepared for the fact that there will be a lot of information. All user data stored by Google can be downloaded or put in the cloud. The Guardian writes that in his case the archive weighed more than 5 GB.
By accessing someone else’s account, you can find out almost everything about them. Not surprisingly, the demand for VPNs and anonymous browsers has increased in recent years. However, even they do not guarantee complete privacy.
What to do in such a situation? Of course, we can throw away all the gadgets and go live in a far village. Then Big Brother won’t get to you. But if this option is too radical for you, you need to figure out what data belongs to someone other than you and how to protect it.
What does Google know about you? And how to look at and change it?
Places you visit
Your location history saves a list of places you’ve visited. From the service’s point of view, this helps improve Google Maps, but it may come as a surprise to you how much the system remembers.
Let’s take a simple example. You got a new job 5 km away from home, and every day you start walking that distance in the morning and also in the evening on your way home. Once Google realizes this, it is likely that very soon you will see ads for some kind of headphones and fitness bracelets in your browser. Since there is a good chance that you are a potential buyer of these things.
How does Google know this? It’s very simple. The system tracks your movements by cellular signal and GPS and determines how fast the signal goes from one cell tower to another, determining the speed and frequency of your movements.
A timeline of the places you’ve visited is available at this link. You can change or delete an individual entry or the entire history. You can also clear your location history and delete photos uploaded to Google Photos.
Your browser search history is saved on all the devices you’ve used to sign in to your Google Account. Even if you delete your history on one device, it will remain on others.
How does it work? You can see for yourself. View all your activity here. For exapmle, a month ago at 2 a.m., you wondered “What happens if you pour water into boiling oil?”. Google remember it to you, because doesn’t forget anything. You can clear your history and customize what information is saved, but you have to do it manually.
Google saves information about every app and extension you use. This means that the system is aware of when you go to bed, go to the movies, read books, and look for work.
It works both ways: many installed apps have access to your Google account. If some of them seem unreliable, it makes sense to deny them access to the information. To do this, click the “Close Access” button in the app summary.
Google remembers what and when you search on YouTube. That means the company knows what movie reviews you watch, what cosmetics you use, and what tasks you can’t do without a video tutorial. Sherlock Holmes would even guess when the user was drunk on the site – from the typos.
Refresh your YouTube request history. You can delete certain requests by clicking on the cross next to each of them, or clear the entire history (in the menu on the right), or disable saving altogether.
Collecting data to form personal Ads
Personal information is used by Google to set up targeted ads that allow advertisers to target based on certain parameters: geolocation, gender, age, and search queries. The system remembers which products you looked at online stores, so your browser may well show ads for products you looked for on Amazon or AliExpress.
Google know your age and gender, all of your personal correspondence, as well as your income level and the things you are considering buying, the languages you speak and even your real estate ownership.
You can disable the ad personalization feature by link above. To keep personalization disabled even after deleting cookies, install a special plugin. However, if you really want to see ads that are targeted at you, you don’t have to do all of this.
How to secure your personal information?
Here are 5 tips to keep in mind to ensure the online security of personal data:
- Using a single sign-on system is a bad idea. Sure, it’s a very convenient feature, but it also compromises your online security. By logging in to a service with a Google ID, you automatically consent to the transfer of your personal data to third parties. Sure, you’ll save 10 seconds on a quick login, you trust Google, but how much can you trust other firms? What are these companies doing with your data, or more interestingly, how well are they protecting it?;
- Remember: whatever is uploaded to the Web stays there forever. The Internet is full of all kinds of strange people willing to use your photos and other personal data for various dubious purposes. Use security settings on social networks and other services to show your data only to people and organizations with whom you are really willing to share information about yourself;
- Easy is not always safe. Similar to point 2, don’t hesitate to link the different resources you use – and then no one will know which sites you visited Friday night to Saturday and which videos you watch while your spouse is away. The Atlantic recently wrote a very interesting article describing how very personal search terms were sold to potential scammers. We recommend reading it;
- Use tools to protect your data. One way to keep your privacy is with the Tor browser, but it’s not clear and convenient for everyone. We recommend that you also use antivirus tools when surfing the Internet.