What Google Knows About You
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes, 34 seconds
So Google bought Nest. And everybody in Tech thinks it’s a big deal. Why? Google buys a lot of companies. Sometimes it’s obvious what they want with it, sometimes it’s less obvious. The main reasons why Google buys a product or company usually isn’t the actual product itself. With all the top-engineers present at Google it can probably (re-)build any product it sets its mind to. The reason Google buys products or companies are mostly either because they are interested in the people behind it (Acqui-hiring) or, and that’s what is the case most of the time, because the company can provide Google with (potential) data. Big data.
That is also the case with the acquisition of smart home device maker Nest Labs. The $3.2 billion they pay for the company is not a big sum when you look at Google’s wallet, but the money will be well worth spent when the data starts flowing in. The home device maker is exactly the data source which was missing in Google’s data set: the one where data from inside our houses gets collected.
On a lot of other elements Google already knows all about us. The NSA really didn’t have to do much more than tap into Google’s data if they want a full profile of someone so it seems, because Google really knows all.
What does Google know about You?
Let’s take a look at what Google knows about you, and how they know that.
Google knows what you are searching for
Via: their Search Engine
This is the most obvious one of course. Since 1999 we are looking at personalised search, which means that the search results we see are altered in a way which helps us find better what we want. But to do that Google needs to monitor what we search for. You search data is being stored by Google.
Google knows what you ‘read’ online
Via: Chrome, Firefox, +1 button, analytics, advertising network
Knowing what you search for is one thing. Knowing where you browse is yet another thing. That’s data which tells Google a lot more about your preferences. How long are you staying on a website? How did you get there, what did you read, watch or do and where did you go after? Google tracks it all. In different ways.
There’s of course the Chrome browser, Google’s property, which is the easiest way of gathering information. But if you’re not using Chrome, there’s different ways. Firefox also sends back information to Google, so does Google Analytics, which is installed behind most websites. But the ‘sneaky’ ones are the +1 button, which sends back information (just like the “like” button from Facebook by the way) of anyone visiting a page (you don’t even have to touch the button) and what about all the ads used on Google’s advertising network? Many small website owners make a small living out of Adsense. Google makes a big living out of it. And it gets ‘some’ data from it.
Google knows what you sign up for
Via: Chrome, Google login
Google also knows what you sign up for. There used to be a time when for every single website you needed a separate login and password. Those times have passed since now we can easily log in with our Facebook or… Google account. Easy do-able and you never have to remember a password again. But meanwhile you are letting Google in on all the sign ups you do.
Google will know how much you make
Rumour is that within a few years time Google’s login button will also be used for US citizens who are going to fill in their taxes online. In that case you would potentially be giving Google access to knowing how much you earn.
Be aware though that this is probably not as ‘deep’ as you might think. Yes Google knows you are logging in somewhere, but that doesn’t mean they know what you are doing after that log in. We don’t know that.
Google knows who you talk to (and find important)
Via: Google+, Gmail, Chat, Hangouts
Google knows exactly who you are communicating with. If you are using Gmail Google will know who you e-mail with the most. The same goes for Hangouts and chats: it tells Google which people you seem to think are important, because you communicate more often with them than with others.
Don’t have Gmail? Don’t worry, Google will know anyway probably since so many people are, there is always one who has Gmail, or uses it as a client to get in other e-mail, and who has e-mailed you. Bingo, now Google knows you exist as well. It can now start tracking you through their other channels.
I actually experienced this personally. My dad is not using Gmail or using Google+. However I did send an e-mail to him from my Gmail once. And now Google is showing my dad as a potential contact in Google+ for me.
Google+ itself of course is another big give away when it comes to finding out who is important to you and who is not. If you are using Google+ you probably have created some circles. The contacts you have, you probably put in different circles so you can keep them apart. Well, not just you, Google as well. You just told them who belongs where.
And Google just last week decided to combine Gmail and Google+ a little bit more, by allowing you to e-mail anyone in your circles, without having to know their e-mail addresses. I wonder why…
Google knows who you are connected to but don’t necessarily know
Via: Google+, Gmail, Communities, Google Groups
There’s plenty of people you know, but in your network there are also a lot of people you don’t know. But who share the same interest for example. These people are potential connections, but also deliver valuable information about things you might be interested in. Taking it outside the ‘bubble’ so to speak.
These people can be found by looking at your extended network. This can be friends of friends (think Gmail), but also Google+ Circles, communities you are in, or your friends are in, on Google+ and Google Groups of course. All valuable information which will show your network and will at the same time show your engagement in them.
Google knows who you meet and your agenda
Via: Google Calendar
A simple one again: are you using Google Calendar? In that case information about where you will be going, where you have been and who you will meet or have met is all neatly organised in Google. It’s all there. There will not be someone at Google sitting in an office looking at your agenda (let the NSA do that), but their algorithms will figure out connections within the data. And that’s what its all about.
Google knows what you like to watch
Like to watch a few videos on YouTube? Nice! It really is fun. And when you return to YouTube do you suddenly see all sorts of videos which magically are videos which are like the ones you watched before or which are of your interest even though you haven’t seen them before? That’s Google monitoring and acting on your behaviour again. Very convenient.
YouTube, the worlds second largest search engine, is a highly used website. Especially amongst young people. Nielsen even says, YouTube reaches more US adults ages 18-34 than any cable network out there. [Source: http://www.youtube.com/yt/press/statistics.html] Who needs TV right? Well to be honest, some people do. But with that they mean the big screen. And why not help them as well, introducing Chromecast? Which will allow you to see almost anything on the big screen. And meanwhile Google knows…
And people really look for anything on YouTube. I have to admit, I’ve been looking on YouTube to see how this small IKEA drawer had to be installed. And you know what I did with that? I just told Google I’m changing some things in my house…
Google knows where you are
Via: Android, Google Glass, Chrome, Maps
It’s not just online what Google monitors of people. Google also knows to pinpoint people’s exact locations. Take Android for example. Android knows actually where you (well, your device) is. And with over 80% of people using mobile phones, most of them Android, this means that Google knows for most people exactly where to go and where they have been.
The free navigation on Android is great. But it does more than just tells you where to go. It also tells where you’ve been. And Google Glass does the same of course, as will all the other wearable items which will come out in the future.
Google knows where you are going to
So Google knows where you’ve been. But it doesn’t know where you will be going. Right? Wrong. With services like Google Maps, Flight Search an Hotel Search it gets an idea of where you might be going. And when I look up on Google Maps what the directions are from here to my next meeting and I then get into my car and open up navigation. It will show the location of my meeting as one of the options of where to go. Alongside all sorts of other information of what’s around me.
Very useful indeed. As long as you know that the data isn’t just there with you.
Google knows what you sound like
Via: Google voice, Google Now, Voice Search
In the past few years Google has launched some nifty new features. Google Now is one of them. “Siri” would be the equivalent on the iPhone. But also Google Voice and Voice Search are products which have been launched in the last few years. All great and useful products who help you do things faster.
And who help gather data. Voice Search (“ok Google, where is the nearest gas station”) of course combines the earlier mentioned search data and the ‘where do you need to go’ data. As does Google Now. But all have one thing in common: it recognises your voice. It tells Google the language you are actually using and how you say it. Who knows what this can be useful for in the future, but you can rest assured that the data is being used for further developments.
Google knows what your friends and connections do
Via: all of the above
Finally (even though I could probably go on for a while), there is one big important piece of information that Google knows about you: it knows what your friends and connections do. As we all know, the most receptive we are is for the people around us. They are the ones making us buy, go places or do things. Because we trust them. So for Google it’s important to know who our friends are. But also who influences us. And what they like. So for all of our connections they are doing the same as for you. And then they combine the data.
What about Nest?
Google will now know the inside of your house and how hot or cold you are.
So why did Google buy Nest? And why is it such a big deal? Is it because Google is moving into yet another industry? Yes. Or is it because Google can now compete even better with the likes of Apple? Also yes. But one thing is more important than all of that: data. This again will bring Google more data. Data from inside your house. They just stepped into your doorstep.
What does Google do with all the data?
It’s clear that Google knows a LOT about us. I haven’t even mentioned every data source Google has. There is much, much more. But still it is very much. Maybe even too much. It has to be said that we don’t know exactly how Google ties this all together. We know that it’s not a ‘person profile’ where just anyone at Google can log into and check what you’ve been up to. It’s data connected together by computers. So making claims to Google being evil is tempting, but also dangerous. Because we still know too little.
All of the above is common knowledge. We know Google collects the data. But what they do with the data we don’t exactly know. They might be using it for the best or the worst. Pessimists will think the latter, optimists will think Google will use it to build new great stuff for us which will make our lives better. Probably both are right.
All we know is that there is a lot of data about us out there.
What we don’t know is how exactly all the data is connected. But maybe that is the biggest issue right there: we don’t know. We should probably have more control over this, be able to turn things off and on, adjust things, at least know what data is out there. But most importantly: we should be able to at least understand. Most people don’t know that Google tracks them in such ways.
And that’s where it starts: understanding of what is happening. This means Google needs to be more open, but we also need to be more understanding. The world is changing, so is privacy. Being completely invisible is probably not possible anymore, or at least it won’t be. But we will need to be able to manage it better and understand it more.