Here’s What Google Knows About You—and What You Can Do About It
Yes, Google knows a lot about you, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
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What does Google know about me?
Considering the number of targeted ads you likely encounter while browsing the Web, nobody could blame you for wondering, “What does Google know about me?” The short answer: A lot. But it’s not necessarily something that should have you researching how to disappear from the Internet. “Lack of privacy is not an absolutely bleak option,” says Vahid Behzadan, PhD, assistant professor of computer and data science at the University of New Haven. “If we accept that the data that we share is going to be stored and that there’s always a trade-off to our privacy, we may be able to get a better handle on the privacy issues.”
It does seem like more of us understand that some of our data will be sold in exchange for the convenience of using certain apps or services. In 2020, the Digital Lab at Consumer Reports studied the privacy policies of several video conferencing platforms, such as Skype, Zoom, Webex, and various Google products, including Meet, Duo, and Hangouts. The research concluded that these corporations tended to describe their data collection practices or usage in unclear ways.
With the help of Behzadan, we’ll answer some key questions concerning what Google knows about you and why it tracks certain info. And if you’re worried about protecting your online security, here are some tips on how to browse the Internet anonymously, how to tell if your computer has been hacked, and how to find the right security app to ensure your digital privacy.
Does Google know my search history?
Behzadan confirms that Google is tracking us on multiple domains. In fact, the Google search page itself is a form of tracking. “When you search for something on Google, it’s stored for life. It’s not something you can get rid of, particularly if you’re logged in to your Google account,” he says. But don’t panic. Your information is mostly collected in theory. “It doesn’t mean a Google employee would be able to isolate your search terms; it just means that Google has access to your search terms,” Behzadan clarifies. The good news? There is a way to delete your Google activity.
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Does Google know my shopping history?
“There are shopping websites that share your activity history with Google, and Google may use it to fine-tune their targeted ads,” Behzadan says. “They also may use it to improve your personalized search results.”
Other corporations may use this data too. “There are also companies that use product search history for dynamic and adaptive pricing,” he says. “So there are companies that look at the particular item that is visited or purchased and use that to change the pricing.” Many of those are within the tourism industry—it’s the reason flight prices can skyrocket so quickly. And they might track your peers as well. By the way, if you’ve been shopping from your work computer, you might not have realized your employer can see what you do online.
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Does Google know where I’ve been?
Yes, certain Google services know where you are and where you’ve been, but they track your location information in order to provide location-based services. “Google Maps essentially tracks your location. It’s supposed to do that; it’s a navigation app. The way we get alerts about traffic jams, etc., is based on the geolocation data that Google tracks,” Behzadan says.
Google also knows where your photos were taken. “Google Photos and Google Assistant also track your activities,” he says. “The photos you share are tagged, geolocated, and shared with Google.” It might seem like an online privacy risk, but by signing the user agreement, you allow Google to circulate this info.
Behzadan says that, in general, you should turn your location services off for every app except those for which your location is absolutely necessary, like navigation software. Just be prepared to possibly lose some functionality. “If you don’t share your location, you won’t be able to use those services,” he says. For example, if you don’t share your location with Amazon as you browse, you might not see accurate shipping fees.
When trying to decide when to share and when to turn off location services, “you have to do a cost-benefit analysis,” Behzadan says. “Is it worth sharing my information to use these tracking services?”
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Does Google know my passwords?
Behzadan jokes that “passwords are a terrible idea” because there’s no such thing as a perfect password. “All passwords are breakable,” he says. Even if you follow every rule for creating a strong password, “every password you come up with is what you use or think about, and there are tools and software that use all combinations [to guess that information] until they get it right.”
Google definitely knows your passwords if you choose to save them via Google Chrome, but that can sometimes be a good thing. Google’s Password Checkup feature regularly analyzes your passwords and compares them against public lists of compromised passwords, then notifies you to update them to keep your info safe. To avoid the risk of password hacking entirely, Behzadan recommends using a password management tool, which randomly generates a password for you whenever you need it.
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Is Google tracking me on my phone, tablet, or smartwatch?
You probably already know the answer to this one: Google is always tracking you, though Behzadan says the company tracks a bit more on some devices than others. “Google TV is essentially a Chromecast with a remote,” he says. “Google Assistant is embedded in it. That’s an additional outlet from which Google collects information.”
But there’s good news too. “Over the past decade or so, the type of information Google collects has been quite limited,” Behzadan says. “Previously, all Android phones were tracking your geolocation nonstop. Or even on your iPhone, if you had Google Maps, they were always tracking you. Things have changed considerably since 2015 in terms of what Google collects, due to legal pursuits and new legislation.”
Some devices also introduce the potential for physical tracking. Learn about the risks of Apple AirTag stalking.
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Why does Google collect all this information?
You’re not paying to use the Google search engine, but you are helping Google grow its business with your search habits. “At the end of the day, any business has to find a way to create value and monetize,” Behzadan says. The way Google monetizes is by tracking your data, often via cookies, and sharing your information with retailers and through advertising.
“If you go on an e-commerce site and look for plungers or diapers, the next website you go to that shares data with Google [and vice versa] might show you ads related to childcare or household items,” he explains. Other than for advertising, Google is using that data to make more accurate recommendations in data or search.
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Does Google share my information?
Yes, the information Google collects is shared with other partner organizations. Behzadan says that Google isn’t the only one sharing your info. “There are sharing agreements where a Web service like Facebook or Amazon might share your activities with the other members of the data-sharing consortium,” he says. And your data might be shared on Google products themselves, but it isn’t so those apps can spy on you. Remember, for instance, that Google shares your location to better help you use services like Google Maps.
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How anonymous is my information?
All this data-tracking talk may have you reaching for a secure messaging app like Signal, but it can’t be said enough that the vast majority of information gathered by Google doesn’t carry personal identifying information. The core of this technology is machine learning, according to Behzadan. He explains that machine learning allows for the extraction of information from the sea of data that we share with Google.
Behzadan’s research is primarily on the safety and security of artificial intelligence and complex adaptive systems. He is the founder and director of the Secure and Assured Intelligent Learning (SAIL) research group and manages a lab that monitors artificial intelligence (AI) security. In other words, he makes sure AI behaves the way it should so no one can take advantage of it. He believes that machine learning may take over and that it “may be to the benefit of society in general.”
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Does Google tracking benefit me?
As a complex researcher, Behzadan says that he’s very happy with the way Google personalizes his search results but not with the way advertising is personalized. “There is something beneficial about Google keeping track of the information,” he says. “That includes traffic data on Google Maps as well as its high accuracy of spam detection and fraudulent activity on Gmail.” Speaking of fraudulent activity, here’s the most common type of email scam.
What are some anonymous search options?
We asked Behzadan if virtual private networks (VPNs) help erase your digital footprint, and he says they do, to a degree. “Even when you’re connected to your VPN, you’re not really protected if you sign in to your Google accounts,” he says.
But VPNs are helpful in other circumstances. “If someone is planning to maliciously eavesdrop on your conversation or get in between you and the website that you want to speak to—like your bank or work email—a VPN can provide another layer of encryption,” Behzadan says. (Not sure what risk your email can pose? Here’s what hackers can do with just your email address.)
As for Google alternatives, Behzadan says, “DuckDuckGo has been the go-to for the skeptical community,” though he thinks browser extensions can be hit or miss. “There are browser extensions that help with limited tracking, but one of the most common browsers is Google Chrome, so I don’t know how useful those extensions can be in preventing Google from tracking your activities,” he adds.
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Can I opt out of Google tracking?
You may be able to opt out of being constantly tracked by Google. “But it’s very difficult,” Behzadan says. “You have to jump through multiple hoops. In some cases, you can’t.” For example, with apps such as Google Maps that require your location data, Behzadan doesn’t see any way to stop sharing your data.
In the end, the best way to protect yourself is to limit the amount of info you voluntarily share, but using the Internet means understanding that sometimes you sacrifice a bit of privacy for a variety of incentives.
By now, you can confidently answer, “What does Google know about me?” Next, learn how to protect your information from a doxxing attack.
- Vahid Behzadan, PhD, assistant professor of computer and data science at the University of New Haven, and founder and director of Secure and Assured Intelligent Learning