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Our readers know that we have been warning about Google’s personal data collection since we went live. Google is, without a doubt, the worst offender of privacy online. However, we all need to wade through Google’s services from time to time, so we tend to ignore that simple truth.
And a huge number of people still use – and like – Gmail either as their main service or a backup. And if you use an Android device, you must have a Gmail account, but that doesn’t mean you need to use it all the time.
A brief glance through our listing of previous articles will show multiple times we’ve tried to help cure people of their Google addiction. Unfortunately, Google’s business model is about spying on us and reselling our personal information to whomever will buy it. And folks … there are a LOT of companies and government agencies that want to know about us.
I recently started poking around in Google’s personal data repositories and realized that Google may actually have the upper hand when it comes to knowledge about my life. Google may know more about me than I know about myself.
From sharing our past adventures with friends who might (or might not) even care, to searching for ways to cover up our misdeeds, to how we spent our online time at work when our boss thought we were really working, Google knows all of that – and more.
And the data itself is only half the story: Google also compiles reams of stats—stats that, for better and for worse, shed light onto the tech-connected habits of our modern lives. How many emails have you actually sent over the years, for instance, and how many thousands of webpages have you pulled up in your browser? It really is enlightening (or frightening), among other things, to see our actions broken down so precisely.
Before you freak out, though, remember… that a lot of this data collection is completely optional—and very much a tradeoff: By agreeing to let Google store and sell your data, you’re getting access to an ever-expanding array of features at no monetary cost.
But that decision is ultimately in our hands. We are essentially selling our souls to Google in exchange for free services. To paraphrase Hamlet, “to Google, or not to Google, that is the question”.
All of that being said, here are ten of the most common ways Google collects data about us. Which of these items actually apply to you depends on which Google services you use and how you use them. As an example, Android users who take advantage of built-in features such as voice commands, location history and photo backups will almost certainly have more data tracked by Google than non-Android users. But anyone who regularly uses Gmail, Google search, Google Maps, YouTube, Chrome and/or other Google services from any mobile device or computer should already know they get hit the hardest.
And we’re not even going to touch on those nifty little gadgets you can talk to in your living room that will answer questions or play music on demand. They’re already recording everything anyway because they are “always listening and waiting”. That can be even scarier.
So, here we go:
- A full history of your voice commands with any Google product—including actual audio recordings
Everything you’ve ever said to Google, in one convenient place.
OK, Google: Remind me how silly I sound when talking to my phone (you know, when it seems like no one else is listening). If you use voice commands on Android or any other Google product (for instance, voice searches in the Google iOS app when you’re logged in with your Google account), head to the “Voice & Audio” section of Google’s My Activity site to see and hear a comprehensive list of everything you’ve ever said to that inanimate object in your pocket.
And yes, your voice really does sound like that.
- An objective breakdown of your real BFFs (according to Google)
Data doesn’t lie. Discover whom among your Google contacts you interact with the most by clicking the “Contacts” header on Google’s account dashboard. Just be prepared to make up excuses if your significant other doesn’t make the “Frequently contacted” list.
- How much stuff Chrome has saved about you
Your browsing habits, broken down into indisputable numbers.
If you use the Chrome browser and typically stay signed into it, check out your account’s Chrome Sync settings page to see all sorts of brag- and/or shame-worthy stats about your personal browsing habits—things like how many bookmarks you’ve saved, how many tabs you have open across different devices and how many websites you’ve typed into Chrome’s address bar (since last resetting your browser’s history).
- How many Gmail conversations you’ve had
Provided you use Gmail’s archiving system instead of permanently deleting messages, you may be in for a shock: Click the header named “Gmail” in Google’s account dashboard, and get ready to see why your days always seem so short.
Case in point: when I decided to stop using Gmail as a main source of communication, I had just over 12,000 sent messages. Let me repeat that: twelve thousand sent messages.
No wonder I never got anything accomplished.
- A full history of everywhere you’ve ever been
File this one under “Cool Yet Creepy”: Google Maps’ Timeline feature contains a detailed diary of your every move—down to the minute.
No exaggeration: If you carry an Android phone and have opted into location history, the site will show you where you were every moment of every day. And if you really want to weird yourself out, open Timeline right after you go someplace, and it knows where you are. Yup, Google is selling your exact location to somebody, somewhere.
- A comprehensive collection of every site you’ve visited in Chrome—on any device
These days, Chrome isn’t just a desktop browser—and if you’re using the program from a phone or tablet as well as a regular computer, you’re bound to have quite the collective history.
See where you’ve been on the web (while signed in to Chrome) by opening Google’s My Activity page and checking “Chrome” in the filter list. You can search for specific keywords and even filter further by date—a useful tool if you ever need to find a site you pulled up somewhere but can’t quite remember.
If you’re not seeing your Chrome history on the My Activity page, go to the Activity controls and make sure the Web & App Activity toggle is on and the “Include Chrome browsing history and activity from websites and apps that use Google services” box is checked. (Also make sure that you’re signed into Chrome on your various devices.) Your Chrome activity will be tracked from this point forward.
But then again, as with most of these services, you might just want to turn them off.
- Exactly how many Google searches you’ve made this month
First and foremost, Google is a search engine—so how much are you Googling? Get the skinny by scrolling down to the “Search History” header in Google’s account dashboard.
Click the header to see precisely how many times you’ve called upon Google’s knowledge from any device while signed into your Google account in the past month—along with a breakdown of your most common search types and some of your most frequently used queries
- How many images you’ve stored with Google Photos
I tend to take way too many pictures of my incredibly adorable cat. Thankfully, Google Photos made it simple for me to store all these images and access them anywhere—and also to see at a glance just how absurdly large my cat’s photo collection had gotten.
To get the lowdown on your own virtual photo box, go down to the “Photos” header in Google’s account dashboard. And be sure to take a mental snapshot of the result.
- How many YouTube videos you’ve watched this month
We’ve all been there: You’re in the middle of something extremely productive (naturally) when a single YouTube link happens to catch your eye. Watching one video seems harmless enough, right? But then the inevitable happens: One video turns to two. Wait, what’s that in the “Related” section—a clip of a bird whistling the melody to Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience”? Click. Watch. Repeat. Before you know it, you’re 19 videos in, and the afternoon is over.
Discover just how much YouTube time you’ve spent in the last month (while logged into your Google account) by visiting Google’s account dashboard and clicking the “YouTube” header. And if your monthly tally is over 200, think long and hard before clicking that next cat-dancing or end-of-the-world clip.
Opting out and taking control
Want to turn off specific types of data collection or delete existing info from your Google account history? The Google privacy site is the best place to start; there, Google provides detailed information about how each type of data is used along with links to opt out of any specific areas. You can also visit Google’s Activity controls page for a simple single-page list of on-off toggles.
If you’re looking to clean up your history for anything that Google has been tracking, head to the My Activity site. You can delete any individual item right then and there by clicking the three-dot icon in its upper-right corner and choosing Delete, or click the “Delete activity by” link in the left column for an easy way to erase info based on date and/or product.
Data collection controls can be also found on an Android device by opening the main system settings and selecting Google (or, if you’re on an older device, looking for the standalone Google Settings app) and then tapping “Personal info & privacy.”
And remember, this may all seem like fun stuff, but all of this information — and more – is being sold to others.
Be Safe – Backup Your Data Regularly!
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