Why Google Knows So Much About You

How Their Ecosystem Works & How You Can Defeat It.

“So what if Google knows a lot about me: I’m still getting a lot for free, right?”

This ignorant statement, uttered by someone I overheard talking at a dinner party, perfectly captures what’s wrong with the way that most of us think about data collection. As I listened to this person speak, I realized we need to have a deeper conversation about how companies like Google collect our data. What’s at stake is our privacy and our sense of well-being, so let’s jump right in…

Part One: What is the Google Ecosystem?

The ecosystem that Google has built is comprised of three components: the consumers who use Google’s various services (that’s you and me), the advertisers who pay Google to advertise to us, and Google’s various digital services including search, email, calendar, maps, voice, etc. Each component adds something valuable to the ecosystem.

What do we contribute to the ecosystem?

We contribute the most valuable thing of all: data. Simply put, when we use any of Google’s products, we allow the company to harvest our very valuable personal data. Google grabs these data from our emails, calendar entries, map searches, location information, phone calls and more. From this data, Google builds a portfolio about each of us: our likes, dislikes, spending habits, travel habits, family members, and much more. That portfolio is extremely accurate, something that’s very, very attractive to advertisers.

What do advertisers contribute to the ecosystem?

Advertisers contribute money… lots of it: more than $30 billion per quarter and rising. Advertisers are paying these insane fees to Google to advertise to us, because of the extremely accurate digital portfolios that Google provides them about each of us. Those data describe who we are, what we like, where we go, and how we shop. Having access to all of that personal data about us allows advertisers to be extremely efficient. Think about it: traditional advertising on the radio or television advertises to all people regardless of their backgrounds. It’s an incredibly wasteful way, economically, on finding new customers. By comparison, targeting JUST those people who, for example, recently had a baby is something that’s attractive to advertisers because it provides them with a highly-targeted group to whom they can sell.

What does Google contribute to the ecosystem?

Google created and maintains all of the various platforms that we consumers use: search, email, calendars, search, news, photos, phone calling, blogging, translations, and many more. These platforms are provided in exchange for the personal data that we allow Google to mine about each of us. Now armed with loads of our personal data, the company establishes an auction on their “ Google Ads “ platform. This auction platform allows advertisers to bid on placing ads which target certain keywords and, therefore, consumers. Advertisers bid against each other and the winning bidders get their ads promoted to the top of our search results like this:

A typical Google search with paid results at the top

These websites may or may not actually find you the best airfare to Europe, but they’ve certainly paid Google to get first page results, so that’s where you’ll find them whether they’re a true match for you or not. Ditto for this search for trying to find the “best computer monitors”…

Another typical page of paid-for Google search results

The bottom line: Google prioritizes advertisers who bid against each other to appear at the top of specific search results.

Is it legal?

There’s nothing illegal about what Google is doing: they’re upfront about what they collect, we agree to those terms to gain access to their tools… the end.

Is it profitable?

Ads are a very profitable business for Google. If you take a quick look at Alphabet’s financial statement (Alphabet is Google’s parent company), you’ll see the numbers: Google earned $36.339 billion in total revenue in the first quarter of 2019 (top of page 1) and Google advertising revenues accounted for $30.720 billion in the first quarter of 2019 (top of page 2). With a bit of math, we see that advertising revenue accounts for a massive 85% of Google’s total revenue line. So, yeh: it’s ridiculously, absurdly, and pornographically profitable.

So what’s the problem?

If the advertisers are happy, if Google is making swimming pools of cash, and if us consumers are getting to use products that we want to use… then what’s the problem?!

A fair question.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with Google’s ecosystem if consumers are truly aware of the data that Google is harvesting about us and decide that it’s worth the price of admission. However, I’m guessing that most of us don’t really grasp just how much data that Google — and others — are collecting about us. In fact, I’m guessing that exactly zero people reading this have taken the time to read Google’s full privacy disclosure, for example. But it’s worth reviewing — even briefly — because the company pretty much tells you that they collect EVERYTHING THEY CAN about us:

It’s REALLY worth reading Google’s privacy policy.

Part Two: Viewing the Data That Google’s Collected About You

Google has a website which makes downloading and then viewing all of the data they’ve collected about us fairly easy. It’s called, aptly, Google Takeout. Here’s how it works:

  • Go to Google Takeout and sign in with your Google account username, password, and 2-step verification if you use one. Once you’ve signed in, you’ll be presented with an opportunity to download an archive of all of your Google Data:
  • At the bottom of step #1, click the blue “Next step” button:
  • In step #2, you’ll be asked to choose the kind of archive you want. Keep things easy and use the defaults that Google suggests: a “One-time archive” in .zip format with file sizes of no more than 2GB. Now, click the blue “Create archive” button:
  • If you’re an occasional Googler, you might need to wait a few minutes (or less) as the website prepares your archive to download. If you’re a heavy Googler, you might need to wait a few hours or overnight for your archive to be prepared. During this process, you’ll receive two emails: the first, an alert that you’ve requested an archive to download; the second, an email that your archive is now ready. As you can see, I had a rather large archive that was broken down into 6 archives, each 2GB in size:
  • Download each of your archive files and unzip them. You’ll be left with a folder called, “Takeout”. Open this folder and view by list alphabetically; you’ll see a series of subfolders with familiar Google service names. Double click the archive_brower.html file as shown:
  • Your default browser now opens your Google data archive. Scroll down on the left side of the screen, alphabetically, and see just how extensive your Google portfolio really is. In mine, Google’s got knowledge of my upcoming flights to other cities listed under “Purchases and Reservations”. So, yeah: they actually know my future which is pretty fucked-up. But not nearly as fucked up as what I'm about to show you.
  • Scroll up or down on the left to where it says “Location History”. Then click the “Review your Google Maps Timeline” link as I’ve shown in the orange box.
  • Assuming that you’ve given Google access to your location history (and most folks have), then you’re now looking at an exact timeline of your life displaying all of the various locations you’ve visited, by day, month, and year. Google, a United States corporation that is beholden to the Justice Department and any other legal entity, has all of this information. Use the calendar in the upper left to navigate your timeline: every red dot on the map is a place (and time!) that Google knows you’ve visited. Below, find a recent trip to Portland that appears on my timeline:
Where I’ve been… Google knows. But not for long…

Now consider this: if you and your friends each have Google accounts and you each have your location history access turned on, then Google now knows who has been with you, in which locations, and on which dates.

By the way, the same is true for any random acquaintances — or strangers — with whom you happen to cross paths. If there’s a crime on a particular date and in a particular location, Google (and every other American company) can be compelled by law enforcement to hand over any data it has regarding the details of the crime. This includes the location where the crime took place.

Am I suggesting that you’re about to be blamed for crimes you didn’t commit? No. Please: I’m not wearing a tinfoil hat. What I am suggesting, rather, is this: if you value your privacy, you must take 100% ownership of your digital software and hardware and learn how to lockdown (or “harden”) your security and privacy settings.

And, now that you see how easily Google collects data from everyone and how much information they actually have at their disposal, let’s learn how to turn that data faucet off, friends.

Part Three: How To Stop Giving Google So Much

I’ll get the obvious out of the way right now: those who are supremely concerned about privacy and corporate overreach shouldn’t be using Google. When I say “supremely concerned”, I mean folks who are political dissidents, citizens living in an oppressive regime, or a journalist (or citizen!) who just doesn’t like the idea of being tracked online. For those of you on this list, Google should be avoided entirely. For everyone else, we can reduce the amount of data that Google collects about us. Here’s how…

The Basic Stuff

Start by surfing to https://myaccount.google.com/activitycontrols. If you’re not yet logged in to your Google account, you’ll be asked to sign in. Here, you’ll be presented with a shortlist of activities that Google relies on you to connect. Screw that: scroll down and deactivate (Google calls it “pausing”) each of them. Do this by clicking on the sliding bar as shown in each activity. When you do, Google will note that the activity has been paused. Here’s what it looks like when your Location History, for example, is paused.

Repeat for every activity listed on this page. When you’re done, surf to https://myaccount.google.com/data-and-personalization and scroll down a bit to the “Activity Controls” section. All of your activities should now be listed as paused as shown. If not, click on the entry in question and pause that sucker!

The Financial Stuff

Now head here: https://pay.google.com/payments/home#paymentMethods. This is where you’ll find all of the financial information that Google has saved about you including credit cards, bank accounts, and PayPal. There is no reason — literally, none — why you’d need or want Google to have this information. If you see items there, delete them. Do this by clicking on the “Remove” link provided on each entry. You’ll be asked to confirm this decision and then warned with manipulative language that you shouldn’t do it. Ignore this warning and confirm your decision: you can re-add any or all of those payment options back later.

There should now be no entries under Payment Methods. Good. Let’s keep it that way.

The Personal History Stuff

From a privacy and freedom perspective, the less Google knows about you, the better. Therefore, think carefully about the personal information you’ve provided to Google at https://aboutme.google.com/?hl=en. This data is what Google shares with the rest of the world about you. Do you have your phone number, birthdate, work history, and educational history all provided there? If so: why?

I’m not suggesting that you need to delete everything at this link; rather, I’m suggesting that you’d better have a very good reason why you’re willingly providing these personal data to Google and to everyone else who might seek to get your information from Google. Does Google and the rest of the world really, truly, need to know your work history, along with where you attended college and high school?

That’s a rhetorical question, friend: no, they do not. Consider each available option and then — my advice — cut most if not all of it.

The “End of Things” Stuff

Some of you may decide that you want to delete your Google account entirely. Others might decide to delete one or more Google services. Here is the link where you can do that and it’s fairly straight forward. Interestingly, this is also the link where you can designate an account beneficiary in the event that you die. My friend Jon wants me to be a digital estate planner (yeh, that’s actually a thing), so I’m sure he’ll love this suggestion: activate this option and designate someone you trust (Google allows up to 10 individuals) to have access to your personal data. That simple decision ensures that your digital life will be controlled by another human when you die, not by a corporation.

The Automated Stuff

In one case, Google allows you to automate when your activity is deleted from their servers. Take advantage of this feature in the Web & App Activity preference panel located here. Now that your activity is “paused”, click the “Choose to delete automatically” button to set the length of time your data is kept by Google:

Select the minimum amount of time which Google allows — three months — and confirm your choice. When you’ve finished, the previous screen should now reflect your choice as shown here:

The Browsing Stuff

Earlier, I showed you how Google forces search results to you that are tainted with advertisers who have paid to show up at the top of your results. Screw that: get rid of all those people by taking these two simple steps:

  1. Ditch every other browser you use and start using the amazing Brave web browser.
  2. Ditch every other search engine you use and start using StartPage.com for all of your searches.

In fact, set your Brave browser to use StartPage.com, by default. Once your Brave browser is downloaded and open, copy this funny looking URL and paste it into your search bar: brave://settings/search There, you’ll find the option for selecting StartPage as your default search engine:

Now, when you search for anything online, you won’t be exposed to a series of ads promoting certain search results to the top of the list. You’re welcome. :)

So is Google Really Free?

No, friends: we’re not getting anything “for free” from Google. Instead, we are paying the company — dearly — by providing it with our very valuable personal information. The good news? We can stop paying so high a price by implementing some or all of the preferences I’ve just described.

When you’re done with Google, consider Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, or any other “free” service that you use. Chances are, you’ve been lulled into a sense of complacency and need to run a security check on each of those platforms to stop sharing as much information as you currently are.

Lastly, when in doubt, just remember this greatest of all quotes:

“If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”
Andrew Lewis

That’s it for today, everyone. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section if you think I missed something because I’m a human and I usually do.

As always… surf safe.

Click here for my guide on how to choose a privacy-focused VPN.
To learn how to set up a VERY secure iPhone, click here.
Click here to learn how to overhaul how you provide your email addresses.
Click here for a crash course on how to keep your devices updated.

David is a veteran of technology & comedy. Sign up for his fun & informative technology newsletter here: https://techtalk.substack.com

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