TL;DR – To minimize data collected by Google: Visit Google Ad Settings to turn off Ad personalization; My Google Activity to turn off Web & App Activity, Location & YouTube History; Google Map Timeline to delete your location history.
What does Google know about you? Almost everything.
While that might sound quite terrifying, it is unfortunately quite true. Most people often associate Google with search, but that is quite far from accurate. Although Google Search is one of it’s biggest products, it has a great deal more.
Many of these products have become so embedded into our daily lives that we hardly take notice of them. Through each of its products, Google will collect different types of information that ranges from our names right down to where we are at any given moment.
I took a quick stop at my Google Account and here’s what Google knows about me:
How Google Collects Data
As of 2021, Google offers a mind-boggling number of over 250 products and services. Each of them is tightly integrated and serves as a potential collection point for data.
Some of the products and services that it makes use of to collect this information includes:
Google Chrome – An Internet browser and built-in search engine powered by Google algorithms helps users find the information they want anywhere on the web.
Google Nest – Looking towards the future, Google Nest helps people integrate tech into their daily lives and promotes smart living.
Android Auto – Smart living is working its way into cars, helping users stay connected and entertained at all times. It can also help with navigation by using Google Maps.
YouTube – You might not realize this but the popular platform is owned by Google. It has grown from offering user-shared video content to today broadcasting live TV into homes.
Wear OS – As people go increasingly mobile, Google has tapped into the wearable market as well, monitoring the way they live, work, and even exercise.
Waze – A crowd-sourcing driving GPS software for drivers.
Google Apps – An ever expanding list of free products and services offered by Google including Google Docs, Google Sheet, Gmail, Google Photos, Google Drive, Google Calendar, and so on.
All of these are just the tip of the Google iceberg.
Because of the large range of uses Google products and services have, they cover a big part of the global population. Since it’s highly unlikely that just a few products or services can capture such attention, it makes use of variety as well.
All of this is integrated by a single factor – your Google account.
In order to effectively make use of most of Google’s stuff you need to have a Google account. That’s the central element that enables Google to collect so much information.
To Google’s credit, the company makes it clear that it collects all of this data from you – and it’s allowed to do so, as long as you don’t say no.
How About Google’s Android OS?
Google Android is slightly different from most of its other products. The majority of Google products take the form of services. Android is a complete platform by itself and runs multiple Google services as part of its core.
What is Android OS?
Android is the Google Operating System for mobile devices. It’s one of the most popular mobile operating systems, installed on over 69% of mobile devices. That includes smartphones and tablet devices.
To give more perspective to Android popularity, its closest competitor, iOS, holds a 29% market share in the mobile market.
Data Collection in Android
Since Android integrates multiple services, it can be considered a data collection superhub for Google. For example, by default, most Android phones will include the Google Play Store, Google Search, Chrome browser, Google Maps, and more.
In addition, thanks to Location Finding features on mobile devices, many of these apps will provide tracking information to Google and authorized third parties.
Studies show that, on average, Android devices send more than 20 times the amount of device data compared to iOS. That’s even if you opt-out of data collection service for the most part. Essentially, Android is a privacy nightmare.
Why Google Wants Your Data
Collecting and processing data from billions of users require a lot of money and human resources (if you ever doubt this – try rent a simple server and simulate a load test).
So why Google wants your data?
The answer to this really depends on how cynical a person you are.
If you’re the type who thinks happy bunnies and sunshine, then Google collects this information to help make your life better. With the data, it can custom-fit things to your profile and help you do things more easily.
For those who aren’t quite so cheerful, then it boils down to one word: Money.
Despite its wide range of products and services, Google Advertising is its cash cow. Google parent Alphabet Inc. drew $61.9 billion in Q2 2021; more than 81% ($50.44 billion) of that revenue came from its Google Ads platform. By just using their free services, you’ve contributed towards making them one of the biggest companies on earth!
As many have said, data is the new oil in this day and age. The more data Google collects, the more accurately it can help its customers (no, not you).
By knowing the intimate details on everybody, Google can help its advertisers target very specific audiences with their ads. This degree of accuracy is hard to get with anyone else since Google has the most data.
Tip: Go to https://adssettings.google.com to see what Google thinks about you.
How to Prevent Google from Gathering Your Data
You can limit the information Google keeps by changing your Google Account settings.
Because of mandatory laws, Google has to allow users to adjust what kind of information it can record and keep. However, since it actually wants that information it does its best to skirt the issue using various methods.
If you tell this to the majority of people, chances are that their reaction will be: “Google tracks my data?”. A fair number may even be aware of this, but few will actually know where to go and adjust the settings they can.
Part of the problem is that Google doesn’t widely broadcast that it allows people to make some settings adjustments. The information exists and is in fact quite clear. But with the massive information overflow that happens today, unless you search for it, it’ll likely never cross your path.
Once you realize that you can change your settings, that isn’t the end of the story. To adjust or remove this information takes a fair amount of effort. Thankfully, the controls are almost entirely centered in your Google Account Settings dashboard.
This consists of the areas listed below:
Important Note: Be warned that in many cases, there is a reason why Google keeps track of this information. If you delete or disable everything Google stores, some of your Google services or related products may not function well in future. Make sure you are aware of what options you’re selecting and what switches you’re toggling!
Interestingly, this isn’t a central view as you might expect but rather a place where Google puts things you might be interested in or need to take note of. For example, if there are security flaws it might prompt you to take rectification steps following its guide.
This is where you see more personal information about you that Google knows.
For example, your name, date of birth, contact numbers, and so on. Most of the information here can be edited – along with their privacy settings. This means you can block anyone from being able to see that information except yourself. Oh, and Google, since it obviously knows.
Data & Personalization
There are a few sections under data and personalization that pertains to how your information is used and kept. This area is quite comprehensive and if you really nitpick about each line you may take ages to refine everything.
If you’re not too fussy, just hit the “get Started” link where it says to Take the Privacy Check-Up. If you want the less guided tour, you can explore the options one by one in this area and adjust everything.
There are many things you can modify in this segment, so I’ll only be covering the items most vital with respect to your data. The key things to take note of include:
Google Activity Controls
The Google Activity Controls dashboard allows you to adjust your web & app activity, location history, Youtube history, and ad settings. The first three are easy and you can toggle them on or off.
Alternatively, on a more controlled basis, you can instruct Google to automatically delete records of your activity after certain periods of time. Interestingly, you can also choose to manually delete only specific activities from your records.
The final thing you can do here is to head to your ad settings dashboard. This is a very interesting page to see as it will show you everything Google thinks it knows about you. This information helps it target advertisements that it hopes will be more relevant.
Clicking on the various options here allows you to either update the information or remove that item if you think it isn’t really relevant to your likes.
If you’re unaware, Google accounts each get a certain amount of Cloud storage space for free. This space is what you use to store your Google Mail, Photos that you save to Google Cloud, and the remainder is simply empty space you can keep files of your own on.
Certain Google products and services use this space on your behalf. FOr example, if you take a photo with your mobile device it might get uploaded here – unless you turn that option off. This is where you can adjust those settings.
Download, Delete or Make a Plan for Your Data
If you really want to know every single thing that Google has recorded about you throughout your relationship with it, this is the area you want to be. You can choose to download aloof that information in one huge chunk. Unless you’re planning a lawsuit against Google, I can’t really see this as being much help.
The ability to delete all your Google-stored data though, can come in useful. If for some reason you want to start a life online from scratch, all it takes is the flip of a switch here. Alternatively you can deactivate your Google account and tell it what to do with the stuff it knows.
People and Sharing
If you get the heebie jeebies with anyone knowing where you are at any time, you need to come to this section and make sure your location sharing is not turned on. You can also adjust what people can see about you.
As they say, money makes the world go round – there’s simply not much room for a free lunch anywhere. Google provides so many people with free services and helps make life a little better. However, we all eventually pay for it somehow. In this case, it’s by the sacrifice of our data.
To be fair, Google isn’t the only culprit in this, if that is even the appropriate thing to call it. Many companies do the same thing. They offer a freebie, then sell the information they gather during the process.
The worst offenders are free Virtual Private Network (VPN) services. The key differentiation between these and companies like Google is that VPNs are meant to help you stay safer and more anonymous online.
By selling your data, these offenders are fundamentally ignoring what they are meant to be doing. If you’re going to go for a VPN service, at least choose a reputable service provider.