In this episode of Hoarders, we take a look at California resident, Google…
Seriously though, Google has a hoarding problem. It hoards everyone’s data, obsessively. In a previous article., I talked about Google Assistant and if you followed that guide, you’ve fallen RIGHT INTO MY TRAP. I am joking of course but the privacy concerns I mentioned in that article are real.
So in this article, I’ll talk about why Google collects your data, how to check what Google knows about you, and what you can do about it.
Google Isn’t Free
Here’s a rule of thumb for you – if an online service is “free”, then you’re the product. Google is arguably the best example of this. Google is everything it is today because of the amount of data it has on people and businesses are willing to pay for that information. No, Google doesn’t simply sell your data to businesses, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but first, let’s clear up with I mean by data here.
Data in this context refers to more than just personal information on users. It refers to personal preferences and purchasing habits. Your mobile number and email address aren’t as useful to businesses as they used to be (thanks to spam filters). Instead, Google processes things like your search and YouTube history, the ads you clicked at, the places you visited, and the devices you use to create an online profile of you that can be used for targeted ads. Google uses your search history to show you ads on YouTube and vice versa. Ever wondered why you’re getting ads about chairs everywhere after you searched for chairs once? Now you know why.
This might seem extremely intrusive but nearly every “free” online service does something similar (Instagram, Twitter, and especially Facebook). That’s their business model.
But let’s look at the other side of the coin before we get our pitchforks out…
The More Google Knows About You, The Better It Works
In the case of Google, there is another reason why it collects so much data – to make your life easier.
By collecting so much data, Google can give you better recommendations, faster search results, and connect all of the services and devices you use through just one main service. This means that you don’t have to remember passwords across devices, save contacts on every new phone, delete photos without really deleting them, and other smaller things like using location data to analyze traffic patterns and improve Google Maps routes.
Google separates the data they collect into two categories. First is the kind of data we give to Google by using their services, like the following:
- Things you search for
- Videos you watch
- Ads you view or click
- Your location
- Websites you visit
- Apps, browsers, and devices you use to access Google services
The second category of data includes information that we provide to Google ourselves, personal information like:
- Your name, birthday, and gender
- Your password and phone number
- Emails you write and receive on Gmail
- Photos and videos you save
- Docs, Sheets, and Slides you create on Drive
- Comments you make on YouTube
- Contacts you add
- Calendar events
According to Google, they are completely transparent about the data they collect and what they use it for but if you’re anything like me, that isn’t enough to convince you – you need to see what they have on you. Well, here’s how you can do it.
Using Google Takeout To See All of Your Stored Data
While you’re reading this article, go to https://takeout.google.com/ and select all the types of data you want to see and download it.
Below is the list of items you can select to include in the Google Takeout file. The file can either be downloaded as a .zip or .tgz and will have subfolders for all of the services.
It’s completely plausible that up until this point you were thinking, “isn’t this guy overreacting a little” but then you visited takeout.google.com, downloaded a few GBs worth of location data, voice recordings, search history from a few years back, and more. After that, you were probably like me – a little shocked (maybe a bit impressed too).
So what options do you have? Can you delete any of this? Perhaps there’s personal information or files that you don’t want to keep online.
Deleting Stored Personal Information
You can delete any and all information/files that Google has stored in your account, in a few ways but it all starts by going to your Data & Personalization tab.
Step 1: Go to your Google Account
Step 2: Click Data & Personalization on the left navigation panel.
Step 3: Scroll down and click on My Activity under Activity and timeline.
Deleting all of the activity data:
Step 1: Go to Delete activity by
Step 2: Select Always and then confirm.
Deleting individual activity data (services):
Step 1: Go to Other Google activity
Step 2: Scroll down to see the list of services
Step 3: Click on Delete or if Delete isn’t available, click on Manage activity
Step 4: Click on Delete activity by
Step 5: Select Always and then confirm.
Deleting individual items:
If you’d like to delete individual items, go back to the My Activity page and click on the Recycle Bin symbol to delete data from that day or click on the 3 dots to delete an individual item (or get more information on it).
What Else Can You Do About What Google Knows?
Okay, so you’ve deleted all of the data Google had stored on you. What now? Will Google start to collect my data again? Yes. But you can change a few Google Privacy settings to stop it from doing so.
How to change Google Privacy settings:
- Go to the Google Account page
- Click on Data and personalization.
- Click on Manage your activity controls under Activity controls
- Turn off all of the activities.
Note: Turning these services off will not disable them on your Google device, it will just stop them from saving all of that information.
Alternatively, you can also delete some of your activities automatically. To do this, go Activity controls. Click on Manage activity (under the activities/services) and click on Choose to delete automatically.
Time to Get a VPN
Google gets a lot of flack for their data collecting habits and is thus under strict government scrutiny, However, there are other, smaller companies that try to collect your data and get away with it. And not all of these companies have the same intention of improving the user experience. Many companies are actively selling your data.
If you are really serious about your privacy, you should invest in a good VPN. A VPN or a Virtual Private Network allows you to securely browse the internet and protect yourself from people trying to record your browsing habits. Having a VPN means you get greater online anonymity (you can mask your true location to a certain degree) and can also access region-locked content. But which VPN to get?
When choosing a VPN, remember the rule of thumb mentioned earlier in the article – if it’s free, then you’re the product. There are free VPNs available but ask any expert and they’ll tell you that getting a free VPN is just asking for more trouble. Most free VPNs make money by selling your data and giving you a false sense of security. And what’s worse than giving bits of your information to many companies is giving all of your information to one company.
So, get a paid VPN that is known to not store browsing data.
What is Google’s Privacy Sandbox
(Almost) every website you visit has something called cookies. You’re probably aware of this because of the “Allow Us’ pop up that seems to be on nearly every website out there. This is known as Cookie Consent and is the result of laws like GDPR in the EU that want to improve online privacy.
Now cookies are bits of information that transfer between the website and the computer (or mobile) browser. Cookies usually transfer information like what browser you’re using, the resolution of your screen, default language, etc. Google Chrome allows these types of cookies as it helps webmasters optimize their websites for the best performance. However, third-party cookies can do a lot more. From remembering your settings on the website to recording your browsing habits…
So Google has decided to pull the plug on third-party cookies and will end all support for them by 2022. Now in the absence of third-party cookies, everyone (and especially advertisers) will have to use Google’s own set of cookies under a new initiative called the Privacy Sandbox. But it’s not what you think it is.In a nutshell, Privacy Sandbox promises to make the internet safer and more private by forcing advertisers to use only one type of cookies – Google’s. This wouldn’t all be bad but it does mean that the company that already has a ton of data of us will have even more. Yep.
Moving Away from the Google Ecosystem
Okay, you’ve heard enough and have decided that it’s time to leave the Googleverse. Not a problem, here is a list of alternatives that I have personal experience with and can recommend in place of Google services:
- DuckDuckGo: A privacy-focused search engine and perhaps Google’s biggest rival.
- Mozilla Firefox: A much more private alternative to Google Chrome. It also has many extensions for added privacy.
- Here WeGo: Google Maps alternative.
- Microsoft Outlook: Great alternative to both Gmail and Google Calendar. It’s important to note that changing emails is perhaps the most difficult and time-consuming task because you’ll to unlink your email address from every service that you use. But at least you don’t have to worry about losing your previous emails because syncing email accounts is pretty easy with Outlook. The Android app is great as well.
- ProtonMail: If you want something that’s even more secure than Outlook then ProtonMail is for you. In fact, I think it’s the most secure email service you can get in 2020.
- Dropbox: Google Drive is super convenient but if you want to move away from the Google Ecosystem that would mean getting rid of Google Drive as well. I can suggest Dropbox for storing and sharing files. However, if you have some technical knowledge, then NextCloud is an even better all-rounder.
Living without Google wouldn’t be easy at all, especially if you’ve been a long-term user but it’s certainly not impossible. It should be even easier if you are coming to Android from iOS.
One last thing, download a backup of everything from Google Takeout before deleting your account and remember that you still might need a Google account for things like your Android phone and YouTube. If you want to get rid of Google completely on your Android phone, you can install LineageOS, an open-source version of Android that doesn’t require a Google account.
Now, I use Google’s products myself and I am typing up this article on Google Docs on Google Chrome and like you, I am debating if it’s time to move away from Google or at least not be as dependent on it as I am right now.
2022 is still 2 years away and hopefully, further government scrutiny and awareness about online privacy in the coming years would help break down this addiction of obsessively hoarding people’s data that companies and advertisers seem to have developed. And with that, this article comes to an end. I would love to hear what your thoughts are on this and if you think the United States needs stricter, nationwide privacy regulations like GDPR.