What does Google know about you?

BY Mandi Goodier

1st Jan 2015 Technology

What does Google know about you?

We all use it every day. It's so trusted that we tell it our embarrassing health problems, all our perverted desires, and is used so often it has transcended from brand name to verb. With access to so much personal information, what does Google have on us?

Google is God when it comes to the internet

The world's most visited website, for most it's difficult to imagine a day without using Google. Evolved from its beginnings—a handy web page that provided an easy way to organise and mooch around the World Wide Web—it is now a tool for communication, can give directions, is a mobile operating system, it helps you view the world (Google Glass), and it's even learning to drive.

How can such an all inclusive service be free? The simple answer is, it isn't.

Where most real world transactions are based on a monetary exchange, Google's services are based on a data exchange: you use its service gratis, and it takes your data. 

With daily access to virtually every one of our online activities, that's quite a lot of data being amassed. So what does Google know about you? And more importantly, what kind of internet god is Google: benevolent or malevolent?


What you look at online

Google recent history

Google's most obvious and widely used function is finding things. So naturally Google is going to be keeping a record of what you're looking at.

But it goes a little deeper than just collecting search information, it also logs when you click on a link, don't like it and so leave the page immediately. This helps Google recognise if a website provides good quality information (if everyone's clicking right off it, it can't be great), it also gives Google an impression of your tastes as an individual.

Other things it measures include your journey; how you travel through websites, what other links you click on, any ads you engaged with, whether you 'liked' the page or commented on it.

All the time Google is learning about you and the kind of person you are. In turn, this helps Google to provide a more individualised search in the future, aim to provide the information relevant and useful to you so that the internet is the kind of place you can thrive in.


Where you go

Google map of where I've been

Google Maps has certainly made circumnavigating the globe/neighbouring vicinity a doddle, marking the end of the A–Z.

Whenever you search a location using Google Maps, you can expect that to be marked off for future reference. But it isn't just the places you're planning on visiting that Google remembers. If you have Google Maps installed on your phone or mobile device, the chances are your privacy settings permit it to track and store your every step.

Sometimes this can be fun, for example if you've been to Zumba you can look back and find a series of chaotic zig-zagged paths mapping out your undoubtedly graceful moves across the venue. Sometimes it can be useful, like if you have been out for a walk and stumbled across something delightful that you simply must see again. Sometimes it can be a sobering reminder of how monotonous day-to-day life is: home–train station–work–train staion–home.

And yes, in time Google does recognise where you work, and where you live based on the amount of time you spend in each location—and labels it on your device thus. 

Knowing where you are helps Google provide more accurate searches. For example, if you want to find a cobblers, it's no good Google turning out West London's finest when you live in Merseyside. But Google also needs your location if you are using it as a GPS, giving you real-time directions.

But why does it need to remember where you've been? We can only imagine it's to do with expanding services. Remember, Alphabet (the company that own Google) have fingers in many technological pies.

Perhaps it wishes to learn how we interact with the world outside of the internet, maybe based on what it knows of our interests, and the places we frequent, it will one day be able to predict our future spouse... Who knows what lies ahead.

Until Google Clairvoyant is launched, you can check your past journies as mapped by Google here.



What you talk about

OK Google

The chances are, you may not be aware of Google Now, but if you've ever used the Google app on your phone, googled a question, or uttered the phrase "OK Google", then you have used it.

Google Now is a 'personal assistant' that recognises natural language and will communicate with you based on your instructions, whether that's opening an email, returning a web search, or answering a basic question.

Notice the term 'natural language'. You may be thinking, "the language I type into the search bar is natural", but there is a distinct difference between conversational speech (dubbed natural language), the written word, and internet speak—especially when it comes to search engines.

It's only really in recent years that we have moved away from the 'keyword search' and started asking more detailed questions: instead of "Wine" or "Wine red calories"—which would no doubt turn up a Wikipedia page or something incredibly general about wine itself—we're now more likely to type something along the lines of "How many calories are in a glass of wine?", and Google Now will promptly return "83" with a drop down menu featuring many variables. Smart stuff.

In the early days, Google didn't know what on Google Earth you were talking about. All it had was a set of indicators: you typed in a word, it would recognise the same word across a variety of websites, then it would check on the quality of that website and decide what to put at the top of its search results.

Over time, it has not only been able to connect words to other websites, but to other words and how they relate to each other in a variety of contexts. Essentially it has been learning to read.

"OK Google" has taken this even further: it's learning to listen and respond. So of you've ever uttered those words into your phone, embarking on a voice recognition search, Google recorded that and used it towards its technological advancements. Yes, Google (and Alphabet) is interested in artificial intelligence and it is only getting more and more intelligent. 

If you use OK Google you can hear your requests here—expect a few pocket initiated recordings too.



But is Google using this for good or evil?

Google for good or evil?

Big Brother is watching? Well, when you think of Google as a huge evil corporation that can see exactly where you are at any given moment, and listen in on your conversations whenever it chooses, well yes we can see how that's a little bit sinister. But then again, unless you were plotting to bring it down, why would it want to do that?  

The spin is that Google is making the internet a better place for everyone—no matter who you are (and if you want to know who Google thinks you are, click here). That means using all this info to provide a bespoke browsing experience.

That all sounds very lovely, but remember the transactions mentioned at the beginning of the article? As much as Google wants you to keep coming back by providing an excellent internet experience, it also wants to make money. So all the time that Google is watching where you go and what you do, it is dividing you into market segments and then using this information to sell to advertisers. 

That's right, Google actively gathers information about you and uses that for profit. Of course, there shouldn't be any surprises here.

Google is smart enough to target adverts fairly accurately based on the data you provide. The big question is do you want to be targetted or would you rather see advertisements that are of no relevance?

As for how this information is used in the future, we just have our fingers crossed that Alphabet won't be building any evil Terminator-Skynet-style machines anytime soon.

Thankfully, we live in an age where privacy is valued, therefore you can stop most of this data gathering if choose, so if you have any concerns about the amount of information Google has on you, you can quickly and easily change it by clicking here. Once you're in it's just a matter of tuning the relevant sections off.

You will also need to do this on your device, simply go to 'settings', then 'privacy' and select the Google icon. From here you can select your preferred privacy settings. 

For a breakdown on Google's knowledgebase, What Google knows about you and how to limit it is available on Amazon.

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