Google collects masses of data, but how can you tell what information is collected about you? We list the tools that can help you keep more data private
Google has come a long way from its early days as a provider of a simple online search tool. These days, Google offers email services (Gmail), mapping tools (Google Maps and Earth), social networks (Google+), cloud-storage options (Google Drive), online photo-sharing (Picasa) and with its YouTube brand, is also the big name in online video. Google is now a huge organisation and there is a free version of all the services it offers to consumers – clearly, there has to be a commercial incentive for Google; in short, that’s you.
Your data on the web
Whenever we use the internet we send a small amount of data about ourselves to the services we’re accessing. When viewing a web page, for example, your computer must at least tell the server hosting that website what its IP address is, otherwise the server won’t know where to return the information we want. It’s the same when executing a search for something on the web – the search engine is told the address of your computer, and typically some other basic details, including what you are searching for.
Such information doesn’t personally identify us, but over time a company such as Google can build up a pretty good idea of the sort of things we’re interested in and where we like to read about them or buy them. A smart company can use the data to display adverts that are more likely to interest visitors – for which it can charge the advertisers more money.
For most people this isn’t especially sinister provided you trust the site that is gathering your data. An advert is easily ignored, after all. However, Google’s activities haven’t always been above reproach. Gmail, for example, scans users’ emails, identifying topics and attempting to display context-sensitive adverts around them. As a Gmail user you have consented to this by agreeing to Google’s terms but a major criticism of this practice is that it includes emails sent to Gmail users by others who don’t use the service, and who thus haven’t consented.
Google’s terms and conditions
When Google introduced its new terms and conditions, much disquiet arose around their implications, particularly for the new Google Drive service, which lets users store personal documents and other data ‘in the cloud’ – on Google’s servers.
While companies providing such a service do need quite extensive rights to duplicate, store and display users’ data, Google’s terms don’t explicitly limit the purposes for which the rights will be used. In contrast, rival service Dropbox clearly states: “[Our] terms do not grant us any rights to your stuff or intellectual property except for the limited rights that are needed to run [our] services.”
It is unlikely that Google intends to use its users’ data for anything untoward, but even so, many users may not be aware of the rights they have granted in the first place – such as allowing the content of their emails to be scanned. Fortunately, Google provides several tools and options for users who are concerned about the way it gathers and uses their data – if you know how to take control.
Search and web history
One way Google can learn a user’s search habits is if that user has a Google account, and remains logged in while they search. To avoid this, sign out before performing a search – click the down-pointing arrow to the right of your name or profile picture and click Sign out.
Google’s Web History service aims to improve search results by collecting data about past searches of a user, and the results that were clicked on. It’s an opt-in feature, but those who have used it can opt out by visiting Google History and clicking the Remove all Web History button, then confirming the action. This will clear the stored data and ‘pause’ the service (it can be re-enabled later, if you wish, by clicking the Resume button on this same page).
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