Google and privacy online

By Jonathan Margolis , Tuesday 24 April 2012

Just how much does Google know about you and what can you do about it anyway, asks Jonathan Margolis.
How safe is your information online?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.’ 

Recently it re-defined its self-imposed privacy policy, urging users to read its revised confidentiality guidelines. So how is Google shaping up on its mission to take supreme care of our sensitive private data?  Privacy expert and research fellow Dr Joss Stone of Oxford University’s Internet Institute doesn’t think they do very well at all.

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.’

The new Google privacy policy is too complex to go into detail here but you can find it at www.google.co.uk/goodtoknow, 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.

What Google Dashboard doesn’t, however, tell you is what conclusions it has drawn about you over the years from your search history, Now to do that would be an interesting privacy policy.

'Gosh I didn’t know it did that' - more techie tips...

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.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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  • Peter Shaw

    Posted: Saturday 28 April 2012

    Google provides me with excellent email, brilliant photo facilities, a supreme search engine, cloud storage, language translation, incredible mapping and earth viewing, the best browser and lots of other facilities. All of which is absolutely free.

    Am I alone in not feeling threatened by the little information they can gather on me? Am I simply not neurotic enough to care? Or is it that all that Google has given me has actually improved my life without any harmful effects?

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Google privacy

Just how much does Google know about you and what can you do about it anyway, asks Jonathan Margolis.

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Google privacy

Just how much does Google know about you and what can you do about it anyway, asks Jonathan Margolis.

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