What Does Google Know About Me? Privacy in 2021

Google. They can be considered the largest and most prolific data harvesting machine in world history. Google collects an astonishing amount of information about you, and can make assumptions about you based on this collected data. Below, we are going to dive into the question “What does Google know about me?“, discover what kind of data Google is collecting, and go through some methods to protect your privacy in 2021 and beyond.

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But what does Google know about me?

The answer in plain English is: quite a bit. Personalization and data collection are strong revenue drivers for Google to the tune of $5 billion or more per year, and they are not about to let that money disappear. For serving up personalized ads, and providing tailored search engine results, Google collects a large amount of information on just about anyone who comes in contact with their services.

The amount of data collected on you from Google is highly dependent on the services you use. However, what may be surprising is the sheer quantity and level of detail of the information collected. But how is this information gathered?

How does Google collect my personal information?

Google’s personal information collection methods can be devious. For the most part, they are collected via the expansive range of Google-owned and -operated products we use every day. Examples of this include:

  • Your search history on the Google search engine
  • Use of apps such as Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Drive, and Gmail
  • Your browsing history on the extremely popular Google Chrome browser
  • Your video history based on YouTube searches and viewing habits
  • Using Google Maps or location services via desktop or mobile
  • Text messages on your Google Android mobile device or tablet
  • Google Home and Google Nest home automation products

Digging Into Google Ad Personalization

Google serves up advertising geared towards you based on information gathered from your Google account, info obtained from partner advertising services, and information surmised about you based on search history and other tracked online activity.

The information that Google stores in your profile can be seen by you, and any corrections, adjustments, and deletions can be made relatively easily. To do so:

  • Navigate to the Google home page
  • In the top-right corner, click on your account icon, then click Manage Your Account (or go here)
  • Select Privacy and Personalization, or click here
  • Click Manage Your Data, and Personalization, or click here

Once you get here, look through the information to see how these advertisements are personalized to you. I have pretty high privacy settings, but Google shows me as being a male between ages 25 and 34, and that I speak English as my main language, all of which is correct, as well as quite a few more informative cells. However, others may see a good bit more information, such as general interests and more.

Where does Google obtain this information? For the most part, they are based on search engine history, and online behaviors when interacting with Google-owned or -partnered products (Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, Android, and more).

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Updating and Manipulating Google Ad Data

Advertisers utilize this data, commonly known as “in-market” or “life events” data, to target advertisements specifically towards you and your interactions. For example, you may be planning a wedding or a trip, or you may have recently graduated from school. Advertisers collect this information and share some of it with you in a dashboard, presenting your demographics and your search interests. Here is mine:

what does google know about me demographics

Let’s dig into these a bit and see how accurate they are:

  • 25-34 years old: This is correct, I am currently 31.
  • Gender: Male. This is also correct.
  • Language: English. While I’m using Duolingo to try and learn Spanish, this is accurate.
  • Company Size: Large Employer. Again, accurate in regards to my awesome day job in digital marketing.
  • Homeownership Status: Homeowners. Also correct.
  • Household Income: Upper Middle. Most likely, depending on what the scale is.
  • Job Industry: Financial Industry. Somewhat correct, but I have spent a lot of time in the financial industry over the years, so this makes sense.
  • Marital Status: Married. Yep, that’s right!
  • Parent Status: Not A Parent. DINK checking in (Dual-Income No Kids).

8.5 out of 9 there, definitely not bad, and very accurate for who I am and what I do. Some of these factors, when clicking the cell, state the following:

Google estimates this demographic because your signed in activity on Google services (such as Search or YouTube) is similar to people who’ve told Google they’re in this category.

Your friend Google

To see where this data was collected, click on any cell attribute. It will dive a bit more into how Google arrived at the data-related conclusions about you. Does something appear to be incorrect? If so, click Manage to correct any information on your profile that is incorrect (if you so desire). For example, when you click to update the age range, you get a simple box to fill in your birthday and set privacy settings. Here is mine:

But advertising personalization is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to answering the question “what does Google know about me?“. Let’s explore a bit more.

Break it down for me: What does Google know about me?

As Jack Webb (Joe Friday from Dragnet fame) stated: Just the facts. Here are a few of the more common things that Google can determine based off actual data scraped, mined, and collected from your Google-focused habits:

  • If you are a Google Gmail user, they track your purchase history. You can check it out here.
  • Google tracks reservations using search, maps, and the assistant programs. These can be found in Google My Activity.
  • Besides tracking reservations, any bookings made online are also collected by Google. Airline travel, hotel reservations, theater or attraction tickets, and anything else you book online is collected and tracked. These can all be found in your Google account at this link.

Some of these are controlled by Gmail, obviously. However, you can edit what information Google has, make changes, and toggle tracking methods on and off in My Activity. For example, I have Web & App Activity and YouTube Activity toggled off, but Location History turned on. If I was to go in and toggle Location History off, this is the first message that greets me:

Pausing Location History may limit or disable personalized experiences across Google services. For example, you may not see recommendations based on places you’ve visited or helpful tips about your commute.

What about YouTube?

Of all the data Google collects, YouTube is probably the most innocuous. If you truly want an answer to “what does Google know about me“, YouTube may be the strongest location to start looking. Your YouTube search and viewing habits are followed and tracked by Google and are used to build your profile. (For those who are unaware, YouTube is owned by Google).

In a way, this tracking is quite handy compared to alternative Google tracking methods, as YouTube will continue to serve you content you enjoy viewing. But some may not want Google knowing their viewing habits, and that is completely reasonable.

Co-Founder Note: This article from Wired gives a strong overview of how to delete your YouTube history, and stop YouTube from sourcing your data to serve personalized ads and recommendations for videos based on past viewing history. Written by Chris Stokel-Walker, it’s one of the best recent overviews online.

There is a simple way to get a look into your YouTube history and, if you’d like, delete the information from showing and being reported back to Google. We at Removaly recommend you purge this stored information every quarter or so. If you’re an avid YouTube viewer, it may be more beneficial to clear your watch history each month.

This is a double-edged concept, as it’s long enough for the YouTube recommendation engine to continue to provide fresh, relevant content, while also keeping your account from lugging around years’ worth of personal information, watch history, and data.

Clean Up Your YouTube Search History

To view your YouTube information, sign into your Google account, and select Data & Personalization from the navigation bar. To see the list of YouTube data that Google has logged from your account, scroll down to the Activity controls, and select YouTube history.

If you are wanting Google to stop tracking your searches and viewing history altogether (I have done this, and it hasn’t cut down on the convenience of my YouTube usage), there is an easy way to do this from the YouTube history activity controls. Simply turn off the toggle.

Conversely, if you only want to stop search history or viewing history from collecting your data and reporting it right back to Google, just uncheck the appropriate box. What does Google know about me? When it comes to YouTube, a lot less if you follow the above steps.

Auto-Schedule Deletion of Your Info From Google

To set Google to delete your history automatically every three, six, or eighteen months, select auto-delete and pick the time frame you are comfortable with using. Google will delete any information older than the time frame selected. For example, if you choose six months, Google will delete any information older than six months. 

After choosing an auto-delete schedule, Google will send a pop-up asking you to confirm or delete your request. Select one option. Next, click on Manage Activity. This is where every search you’ve made and every video you’ve watched on YouTube is listed.

To delete specific days’ information, choose the trash can icon to the right of the day chosen, then click Got it. To get more specific details or to delete individual items, choose the three stacked dots icon and click on details or delete as needed. 

If you wish to delete part, or all of your history manually, select the three stacked dots icon at the right end of the search bar at the top of the page. From there choose delete activity, then choose the time frame either Last Day, Last Hour, All Time, or customize the time desired. What does Google know about me? If you haven’t been very privacy-minded in the past several years, quite a bit.

Digging In A Little Deeper

Maybe Google tracking your favorite recipes, or keeping lists of places you want to visit doesn’t really bother you. This type of information isn’t really private data, is it? Well maybe not, but the precision with which Google tracks your location can be chilling, even if you are not doing anything you shouldn’t be doing. 

If you are signed into Google Maps on a mobile device, Google’s eyes are following you everywhere and keeping track of your location constantly. Makes you want to leave your phone at home, doesn’t it? Well thankfully, that is unnecessary. Here’s how to access, manage, and delete your Google location data. 

Managing Google Location Data

Sign into your Google account, and choose Data & Personalization from the navigation bar. To view the location data logged, scroll down to Activity Controls, then choose Location History. If you want Google to stop tracking your location, turn off the toggle switch on this page. 

If you wish Google to automatically delete this information regularly, select Auto-delete and choose the time frame desired. Google will delete any information older than the time frame selected. If for example, you choose three months, no information older than three months will remain on file. Of course, after you choose auto-delete, a pop-up will appear to make sure this is your desire. Select confirm or delete. 

Next, click on Manage Activity. Here you will find all the location information Google has collected on you. It shows the timeline, route taken, places visited, frequency of visits, and dates visited. To permanently delete all location information, click on the trash can icon in the lower right corner and choose to delete location history.

To delete individual trips, select a dot on the map or a bar on the timeline, then, on the next page, click on the trash can icon next to the date or trip you wish to delete. 

To ensure this data has been deleted, go back to Activity controls, Manage Activity, and make sure the timeline in the upper left corner is empty and there are no dots on the map indicating your location. 

Give Me My Data, Google

Maybe you’re feeling a bit concerned at this point with the sheer breadth of Google’s grasp on your personal information. There is a way to get a download of everything Google has on you and has logged on you over the course of your history with that specific Google account. It’s called Google Takeout. By clicking that link, you can go straight to the Takeout screen to start your export.

Per Google: “Your account, your data. Export a copy of the content in your Google Account to back it up or use it with a service outside of Google“. As of mid-September 2021, there are 54 different data segments that you can include in your Takeout export.

Now, I’ve interacted a lot with Google over the course of the past 10+ years I have been using the same account, and I know I haven’t interacted with 70% of these services, however, I want a copy of my Takeout data, just to see what is in there, so I selected everything.

When you move on to the next step, there is a selection for the download method, a frequency, a file type, and size, and then the export is created. I created my export and started it at 6:58 am EST on September 9th, 2021. They don’t give much insight into how long the process takes until you submit your request, but once you do you are met with the following message:

I did not receive an email confirmation that my Takeout request was processing. I’ll report back and update this section once I receive my data. The stopwatch has been set!

Concerned about how much information about you is freely available online? Get your data automatically removed from dozens of people search websites and data brokers for less than the cost of a Netflix subscription with Removaly.

What Does Google Know About Me? Parting Thoughts

Just because you have set Google not to track your online or offline activities, doesn’t mean you have ended the Google collection of data. Google has admitted it can still track your physical location, even if your location services are turned off, by using Wifi and other wireless signals surrounding your phone. Facebook has also admitted to doing this as well. Both Facebook and Google admit their services continue in use even when you are NOT signed in. Is that enough to give you pause to think about your privacy?

If not, then the contradictions abounding in privacy statements issued by Google sure will.  For example, Google has admitted to scanning your Gmail to track purchases despite another statement made by Google in 2018 in which they emphatically state “no one at Google reads your emails.” Perhaps “no one” means no human to Google, but in an age of advanced AI, is there really a distinction between the two?

In summary, it is ultimately up to you to protect yourself against unwanted tracking and data collection from massive data collection entities such as Google. There are apps available online to protect your privacy as discussed in our earlier article about internet safety.

Use non-tracking, non-spying search engines like DuckDuckGo. Use a VPN to hide your location. Make it a habit to use the incognito option when browsing. Adjust your privacy settings. Google itself makes available a Google Analytics Opt-out Browser add-on. Your privacy is your responsibility. Take charge!

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