Recent privacy concerns about the sheer volume of personal information the tech giants hold prompted me to take a closer look at the amount and type of data Google has of mine.
The results shocked me, so much so that I started making immediate changes in the way I use its services – and while I’d be the first to acknowledge that I can be a suspicious so-and-so, I think it’s important that people understand the implications for themselves so they can decide where to draw their own personal line between convenience and privacy.
What exactly is a Google account?
A Google account stretches way beyond your Gmail email address. The Google brand covers YouTube, Google Documents, Drive, Maps, Google+, Blogger.com, Google Analytics, and Calendar, as well as your Google search history.
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What sort of information does Google collect?
If you’ve used any or all of these services then Google will have recorded your search history, location, web and app activity history, and possibly your voice and copies of your photographs too.
Why does Google collect my information?
While it is true that collecting this information does help streamline your Internet experience, Google is just as interested in collating it all because this information is highly revealing - and therefore valuable. Remember the old saying: if you’re not paying for a product then you are the product.
(It’s important to state here that Google does insist that it’s anonymised before it’s used. And, who knows, it might be right.)
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Why should I care?
You might not, and there’s nothing wrong with that! However, some of us are growing increasingly concerned that companies like Google and Facebook have overstepped the mark and are collecting too much information and using it inappropriately.
Can I see what data Google has collected on me?
Yes. The first step is to log into your Google account at https://myaccount.google.com/ . There is a column here headed ‘Personal info and privacy’. Click onto that and you’ll find a range of options.
I started by running the ‘Privacy Checkup’, which is at the top of the page. This shows what information you’re sharing and gives you a link at the end of each section to manage it.
If I click on Location History, for example, it shows a world map showing everywhere I’ve been. This was reported by my Smartphone, which I find a bit creepy. I chose to turn that off.
I’d suggest going through each section in turn, taking a look and checking that you’re happy to continue sharing that information with Google. (And, by extension, the security services, hackers, and anyone else with an interest in what you’ve been up to.)
The next section is ‘My Activity’, which is immediately below ‘Privacy Checkup’. This shows what you’ve been up to and when.
If you keep scrolling down the page you’ll see sections including ‘Contacts’, ‘Ad Settings’ and ‘Your personal info’. These are all worth looking at, if for no other reason than to reassure yourself that you’re happy to share it all. The Ad Settings, for example, are based on your Internet search history, which might explain some of the scarily accurate advertisements you get popping up from time to time…
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Sounds complicated! Is there an easier way?
Google Dashboard gives a useful summary of all of your Google activity – and clicking on each section gives you a fascinating summary of what you’ve been up to as well as giving you the option to control or delete it. I found stuff on there that I didn’t know I’d signed up for, as well as a payment account that would have given me access to someone else’s bank account.
You can also navigate to ‘Control your content’ from the main Google account page where you will see a section marked ‘Download or transfer your content’. If you click on this then Google will run you through a few options before creating an archive report on everything it holds on you.
After it creates this – and this can take “a long time (hours or possibly days)”, which gives you an idea of how much there is to wade through… - it will email you to let you know your download is ready.
Is that everything?
Almost. There are a couple more things to check.
The first is the permissions you’ve allowed for other services and apps to access your data. These can be found under the ‘Apps with access to your account’ section.
The second is which devices have access to your Google account. These can be found in the ‘Device activity and security events’ section. You should delete any devices that you don’t have access to anymore. (I found an old iPhone on there that I’d sold years ago…)
Should I be worried?
Yes. And no. Or both. It all depends on your level of paranoia and susceptibility to indignation.
I do worry, probably more than most but a lot less than some. This means I’m currently in the process of swapping my Google email address to one run by Proton Mail, which is encrypted and more secure.
I also use DuckDuckGo for my Internet searches because it doesn’t collect or share any personal information with anyone. I’ve also paused my activity data on almost everything else.
Over the top? Maybe, but in my previous life as a prison governor I was made very aware of how seemingly innocent information could, and was, misused either deliberately or mistakenly, sometimes with devastating results.
Others disagree and accuse me of paranoia, including a very intelligent, switched-on, tech-savvy journalist friend of mine who has willingly handed his life over to Google. He takes the (not unreasonable) view that he has nothing to fear as he’s done nothing wrong. He says his life is seamlessly integrated as a result and has no plans to throttle back on what he shares.
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What are the downsides to controlling my information tightly?
Good question! For starters, if you turn off ‘ad personalisation’ you will still get adverts but they won’t be tailored to your age and interests. This isn’t a problem for me, so it’s been left turned off.
On the other hand, when I turned off my ‘YouTube Watch History’ I quickly realised that it was a real pain because it didn’t keep a record of what I’d watched, so I regularly found myself starting to watch videos I’d already seen, so I turned it back on. Everything else remains turned off and I haven’t noticed any other problems.
*Despite my reluctance to share anything with Google, the data I downloaded this week still came to 10.17GB - or the equivalent of more than 3,300 copies of War and Peace.
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