How safe is your information online?
Though there are other search engines, Google has a near monopoly on nearly all the world’s information. It is also a ruthlessly commercial company with $20 billion a year revenues. And what’s a company to do if it has all that information – especially when much of it is on you?
Its fathomlessly big robot brain can’t help noticing what you search for, and hence what your interests are, what you prefer to buy, what you’re thinking of doing next weekend, what hobbies you have. So even though it can’t really help being what it is, Google is, as well as a helpmate, a huge potential threat to our privacy. I say ‘potential’ because Google is well aware of its god-like power. Its founding mantra, tellingly, was ‘Don’t be evil.’
Dr Stone won’t even use Google preferring instead a search engine (www.duckduckgo.com
), which he understands doesn’t harvest personal data, although he confesses that he’s not quite sure how it makes a living without doing so.
‘It’s wrong to think of Google as a search engine,’ he says. ‘Google is an advertising network that gathers accurate data about us all and helps advertisers to target us with messages we are likely to find interesting.’
‘When you get down to it, Google’s business is about selling your data, in a certain sense, to third parties.’
As Dr Stone points out your privacy can be invaded in the oddest and most distressing of ways.
‘A man had been about to propose to his girlfriend and that was entirely spoilt by the fact that she logged onto the computer and was getting constant adverts for wedding rings, because he’d been browsing them on the internet,’ he says.
‘More concerning was the case of a gay man who had not come out to his parents and was getting advertising for gay chat lines and websites. His parents saw this on his computer and promptly kicked him out of the house.’
But his greater concern is that he believes it takes considerable knowledge and effort to opt out of giving Google personal information – and that even when you have opted out, it is still possible for Google to know who you are and what you’re looking at via your computer’s IP address.
So what to do? Don’t sign up to a Google account, as they require when you take advantage of their (excellent) Gmail service – and prefer you to do when you use YouTube.
‘If somebody creates a Google account you are then explicitly logged in. And the important thing there is, it’s not just Google’s site, it’s other sites that you visit that themselves have a business relationship or a technical relationship with Google.’
, where there are all the tips you could need to minimise the data Google can collect on you.
The key page this will lead you to the ‘controls’ - such as they are - to prevent Google ‘spying’ on you, and also to what’s called Google Dashboard, where you can see displayed all the basic information Google has on you.
In particular, when wrestling with Google to reduce the information it gathers on you – should you, I stress, be concerned - you should pay attention to how to turn off what are called ‘cookies’ – little packets of information on your computer that make it easier and quicker to move around websites you like to frequent. Deleting your stored cookies and stopping new ones being made will slow down your internet browsing, but will increase your privacy.
Drop down menu short cut
: Instead of scrolling tediously through every country on Earth until you get to United Kingdom as soon as you see a country list come up, start typing United and you’ll go straight to United Kingdom.Hip App of the month...
If you indulge in Twitter or Facebook, you’ll have noticed that a lot of the things posted are links to interesting articles elsewhere on the web. Clicking on all these is long-winded and until you’ve clicked, you don’t know what kind of article you’re being directed to. Flipboard is an iPhone, iPad and Android app that presents these links ready-opened and set out like an ever-changing, and mostly fascinating (depending on how interesting your friends are) magazine. You’ll like Flipboard so much you may end up wishing in was available for your computer. Sadly it’s not - yet.* Stay in touch with all the latest technology news with Jonathan Margolis in his monthly Saga Magazine column.