Manage Your Privacy: What Does Google Know About You & What You Can Do

Last Updated by Joel Timothy on April 02, 2019

You will be surprised at how much Google knows about you. Read on to find out more.

In 2018, Google was the third most valuable brand, according to a report by Brand Finance Global. The core of their success? Data collection.
GoogleGoogle collects a lot of user data from its wide range of services. Not only can it capture data from its popular search engine and Gmail accounts, but Google Maps and its open-source Android operating system also fall into the same trap.

The tech giant claims that it collects your data in order to “make ads relevant” and to improve your online experience. It’s no secret. As soon as you open their privacy policy, the first statement you see is: “When you use our services, you’re trusting us with your information.”

If you want to reclaim some of your online anonymity you should check out alternatives to Google apps here.

So how does Google collect your data, exactly what do they know, and what can you do about it? Read on to find out more.

Quick navigation:

1 How Google collects your data

Google collects data whenever you use any of their services. Below are the main services Google offers and the kind of data each of them collects.

Chrome logoGoogle Chrome

This is Google’s browser, and it’s by far the most used browser today. The browser collects your whole history, especially the websites you have visited.

Note that Google Chrome will also collect this information even if you are not logged in to your Google account. In such a case, they will store the information using unique identifiers tied to the browser.

Google logoGoogle Search

This is Google’s web search tool which is tied to other services like Chrome, Google Home, YouTube, and various other apps and services. The tool collects information on all the queries you search.

Gmail

Google’s free email service is very widely used, and it can be accessed through the web or using Google’s Gmail app. It can also be accessed via other third party programs that synchronize the content through POP or IMAP protocols.

The service collects information on your email and/or phone contacts, and even the content of the emails you send or receive!

Google mapsGoogle Maps

Google Maps does’t just show you streets and different modes of transport. It keeps all the information from the app, which includes places visited, places searched, methods of transportation used, dates of travel, etc.

Even if you don’t open Google Maps, it will still track all the locations you have visited with the assistance of your phone’s GPS and cellular data. You can even check the places you have visited and change or delete trips and locations.

Google AdsGoogle Ads

Google Ads collects your data in order to personalize your ads. This data is taken from your Google account, advertisers that partner with Google, and Google’s estimation of your interests.

The data includes the content collected from across the various Google services. You can check what Google Ads thinks you are interested in on the ads settings page. You can, however, turn off ad personalization on the same page.

Google photosGoogle Photos

Google Photos is super intelligent. It can identify a person from a group of many even when the photo is not clear. The service collects information about your friends and people who frequently appear in your photos, including the places where the photos were taken.

Google calendarGoogle Calendar

Google Calendar can easily collect your upcoming plans and appointments, seeing as you added them yourself. The data can also be taken from emails you receive.

YouTubeYouTube

YouTube collects a lot of data which it then uses to suggest music or videos that you would like. They collect your IP address, search history, videos you’ve played or uploaded, your video playing habits, etc.

Google newsGoogle News

Google News initially uses your browsing history as well as your IP address to suggest news items for you. It then keeps track of the news that you click on and identifies your topics of interest for an improved experience.

Google HangoutsGoogle Hangouts

Google Hangouts usually has access to your contacts, and it can even read your conversations to know your interests.

Google FitGoogle Fit

If you use Google Fit, the company has a pretty good idea of your health status. You feed them with your weight, height and age, and they know your fitness goals, and how many calories you burn a day.

Other Google services that collect your data include Google Books (what you read), Google Shopping (products you are interested in purchasing), and Waze (Directions and places searched, locations visited, etc.).

2 So what does Google know about you?

Based on the information collected by each of the above mentioned services, there’s little that Google doesn’t know about you. They combine the data they get from their varied services to create a pretty accurate picture of you.

1 Who you are

Appearance Who you are

Your general appearance

Google Photos easily identifies what you look like through its facial recognition software. The service highlights pictures with various faces and then tells you to tag friends or people you know. Even if you don’t tag yourself, Google Photos will check all images and easily locate you in a crowd. In most cases, you will be the first person they’ll suggest.

They can then combine your age, weight and height data from Google Fit to know what you look like!

Your personal details

When creating your Google account, you will be required to fill in personal details like your name, gender, and age. They will then continue collecting other details from saved credit cards, Google Fit, etc., to come up with a complete database of your personal details.

Your voice

If you’ve used Google Home on an Android smartphone or any other device, Google knows your voice and what you sound like. Actually, they’ve even stored everything you’ve said to their assistant! You can check it out on Google’s My Activity section.

Your religious beliefs and political views

You will more than likely search various topics concerning your religion or political affiliation. Google has analyzed that data, and they most probably know your beliefs.

They even know the political candidates you like reading about, whose websites you have visited, and probably who you will even vote for in the next election!

Your health status

Whenever you get any symptoms, you most likely Google them. And when you know your condition, you most likely search for its treatment or medication. Google records it.

Compiling search data and cross-referencing it with patterns such as visiting health centers, not going to work (they know), etc., gives them a very good understanding of your health status.

2 Everywhere you’ve ever been

Everywhere you’ve ever been Google is excellent at tracking places you travel to, especially if you use an Android phone. They can even show you a route of your whole day and highlight the places you walked to, drove to, visited, etc. Here are some of the things they know about you from Google location services.

Your home and office

Google can easily locate your home by evaluating where you usually are at night or on weekends. If you are thinking, what if I’m staying in a hotel? Well, they already know that, too. They track the places you go every day, and how long you stay there.

After some time, Google Maps will suggest that you add these places as either home or work. Once you do that, you’ve confirmed your prime locations.

The places you’ve traveled to

You will have noticed that whenever you go somewhere, Google asks you to rate that place unless you have turned off those suggestions. They know when you go to new places, and they even know what you did in that place. Any museum, café and such like places you visit will be recorded on your profile.

3 Who your friends are

Who your friends are Google usually asks for access to your contact list when you use some of their services. And if you use an Android smartphone, that happens by default. Google can access everything in your contact list and even sync your contact’s phone number with their email details and declared work positions.

They can then analyze who you frequently talk to, how long you stay on the phone and even the Gmail contacts you contact most. If you chat on Gmail about where to meet with a friend, they’ll know, and if you take a picture, Google will also tag them on Google Photos. They claim to do that to help you remember the same day many years later.

4 Your browsing habits

Your browsing habits Google likes knowing how you use the internet in order to target you better. When you use their Chrome browser, they will have access to all the websites you visit, how much time you spend on a particular website or page, etc. Even if you don’t use Chrome, you most likely use the Google Search Engine. The effect is not much different as they can still see what you search and they will retain your data.

But what if you use a different browser or a different search engine? Well, most likely the website you visit uses a Google service like AdSense, Google Analytics, or even an embedded video from YouTube. Whichever it is, these services will automatically send certain information about you to Google.

This information will most likely be the URL of the page, and your IP address (we’ll show you how to change it and remain anonymous later). They may also set certain cookies on your browser, or even read cookies that are already there! Either way, escaping this will be a bit tricky, but there are suggestions for that at the end.

Check out our list of the top private search engines that don’t build a profile on their users here.

5 What you like

what you like
Google bases its information on the kind of a person you are, and what you like is a big part of that. They therefore extract keywords from your Google searches and the news you like reading and then combine it with other patterns to establish the things you like in general. These are grouped into categories, like the following:

Your interests

If you like Sports, you will more than likely search for news on your favorite sports team or event. Google will analyze this data and then start to suggest articles and news relating to that team or sport. This applies to all other areas of interest be it fitness, cooking, or any other.

What you buy or would like to buy

This is one of the areas where Google is usually very keen to capture data. You will have noticed that whenever you search for a product on an e-commerce site, you will keep on getting ads relating to that product.

This is the work of AdSense as it sends a cookie to your browser regarding that product. They then index it into their database in order to draw a pattern of the things you like to buy or would like to buy.

What you watch

Google definitely knows the kind of videos you like to watch. This includes the type of music you listen to, the type of movies that you enjoy, etc. This is collected from a combination of your search history and YouTube, their popular video platform.

If you use the Google Home app on your phone, you most probably receive notifications when a musician from a genre you like releases an album.

6 Your future plans

Your future plans Google not only knows what you’ve done and what you’re doing, but also what you are planning both in the short and long term.

Places you plan to visit

If you’ve been looking up a particular place or searching for information on a particular location, you will most likely visit in the not too distant future. You’ll therefore search for things to see there, the best hotels, travel agencies, etc. Google can then target you according to this data.

Future life plans

Google already has a whole database of information on you. If at some point you start to search about engagements and weddings, or the right time to have children, they will know that you are planning on starting a family.

They will use this information to tailor their adverts especially for you, and know more about your life than most people on the planet!

3 How does Google use this information?

Google doesn’t hide the fact that they collect user data, why they do it, or how they use it. Here are the main reasons why Google claims they collect your data:

Ad Personalization

Ad Personalization is a technique used by Google to make your ads more useful to you. For example, if you’ve visited a website that sells menswear, you could start to see menswear adverts for products similar to the ones you were looking for.

Google also uses your other topics of interest to determine the type of ads they will bring to you. These topics are derived from your search habits and other data they’ve collected. In such cases, you are more likely to click on these ads, which means they’ll receive more revenue.
Google Ad Personalization You can, however, turn off ad personalization if you wish. However, this will not have an impact on the number of ads you see or their frequency. You will simply receive generic ads instead.

Maintain and improve services

Google uses the data they collect to improve the service they provide. This is done in various ways, such as:

  • Facilitating provision of services
  • Maintaining and improving services
  • Developing new services
  • Providing personalized services
  • Measuring performance
  • Communicating with you
  • Protecting Google, users, and the public

Here’s a detailed explanation of how Google collects data to improve its services.

4 Does Google share or sell data?

Does Google share or sell data Google clearly states that they do not sell your information to anyone. However, many of their services allow you to share your own data, when sharing public information, i.e. leaving a comment on a video. Other users will be able to see your name and profile picture. They may also display such information in ads depending on your Shared Endorsements setting.

Google can also share your non-personally identifiable information publicly and with their partners, including advertisers, developers, publishers, or rights holders.

This happens, for example, when they want to demonstrate trends that occur by using their services. The most alarming is when they allow specific partners to collect data from your browser or even device using their own mechanisms.

Apart from the above situations, Google won’t share your data except in the following circumstances:

  • With your consent. For example, when you create an account using your Google profile.
  • For external processing.
  • For legal reasons.

5 How to curb Google’s data collection

If you’ve been following, you would have realized by now that there’s very little Google doesn’t know about you. Starting with your personal life, your family and friends, to the places you go, and the websites you visit, there’s not much left to discover.

Here are the best ways in which you can curb Google’s data collection efforts:

1 Use a VPN

Virtual Private Network (VPN) A Virtual Private Network, or VPN as it’s widely known, is a privacy and security tool that is used to spoof your online identity and secure your data.

A VPN works by encrypting the data on your device and then securely tunneling your online activity to a server of your choice. That way, your ISP can’t see the type of data you are using, and neither can Google. Instead, they will ‘see’ a fake IP address and won’t be able to use your IP location to feed you with what they want.

We recommend using ExpressVPN for added privacy, security and anonymity online.

It won’t keep any of your logs, and its data encryption is military grade.
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2 Adjust your privacy settings

It’s very important to control what data of yours is accessed or used, and Google allows you to do that by using their many Activity Control options.

They even allow you to visit your Activity page and delete stored history and activity.

3 Use private browsing

Every browser offers an incognito mode. This mode won’t record any of your search histories or websites visited. It won’t log to your Google account, which means you won’t add to the data they already have on you.

However, some websites will still collect and share your IP address, but that can easily be overcome by using ExpressVPN.

4 Turn on location reporting

It’s hard to keep Google from knowing where you are if your smartphone runs on Android. This is because you most probably use Maps or Waze for directions.

Although you can turn off your GPS location, they will still be able to pinpoint your location using Wi-Fi or cellular data. To beat this, you will have to turn on your VPN after turning off your GPS location.

5 Avoid Google products

This one is tricky, but if you are willing to go that extra mile it’s worth it. One of the first things you will have to do is stop using Android. After that, you can use browsers like Safari, Firefox etc., with a privacy-oriented search engine like DuckDuckGo.

However, you will have to look for alternatives to the many Google products and services offered, like Google Maps.

6 Delete your Google account

Google already knows a lot about you, so you will need to get rid of their accounts completely if you want to minimize what they know about you.

This will mean losing any data stored on your account and even on other services that you have linked to your Google account.

6 Final thought

Google probably has enough information to clone your identity. Although they give you the power to control the information they hold, you can’t really avoid them unless you stop using their services altogether. But that’s a drastic measure that can be avoided.

Your first step to protecting your identity and encrypting your data is by using a reliable VPN service, like ExpressVPN. From there, you can employ the various tricks listed above to take back control of your data!

Joel Timothy
Joel is an online privacy advocate, writer, and editor with a special interest in cyber security and internet freedom. He likes helping readers tackle tricky tech and internet issues, as well as maximize the boundless power of the internet.