Curious to see how much a sprawling Internet company knows about your likes, history and movements? Download your Google data.
This is the time many of us are taking a harder look at our Facebook data, spurred by a reminder that we’ve allowed the social network incredible access to our preferences, thoughts, movements and friends.
But Google tracks even more of our lives, as more people use Google for many other parts of their days — including email, calendar, Web browsing and the Android mobile operating system, which has an 85% market share of smartphones, according to market tracker IDC.
Many of us started using Google before Facebook, and thanks to wildly popular services such as Google Maps and Waze, Google can keep tabs on our every move. But the varied nature of Google’s apps and products (which also include No. 1 video site YouTube) mean that it may be keeping more on you than you may realize.
I downloaded the Google data. Here’s what I found.
Begin by going to https://takeout.google.com/settings/takeout.
This is Google’s data download page, where Google shows you all the various units from the company. Google lets you choose whether to download the data from all the categories from the Google universe or go piecemeal.
Choices include Calendar (what appointments I had), Chrome (my searches), Drive (my saved uploads), Location History (everywhere I’ve driven to or asked directions for in Google Maps), Play Music (what songs I listened to), YouTube (videos) and Hangouts (who I interacted with.)
Gmail is not on the list, but the application keeps a record of your emails, unless you’ve deleted them to make space. Last year, Google said it would stop reading your email to target ads.
You have the choice of getting the download via an email link or having it archived in your Google Drive, but this does count against your storage quota, Google notes. (I subscribe to a 1TB backup, and it’s already got 750 GB full, so I went for the partial download.)
Mine arrived in a few hours, delivered to Gmail. After unzipping the files, most are categorized in clear-to-read English and go way back — mine to 2009.
The list included everything: a voice request on Google Home to solve 6*12.50, I listened to Prince on Google Play last week, watched a James Corden clip on YouTube and every Google search, made both publicly and anonymously in Incognito mode.
That last bit of history was a surprise. Google tells users that searching in Incognito mode means “Chrome doesn’t save your browsing history” and “basic browsing history information like URLs, cached page text, or IP addresses of pages linked from the websites you visit.”
We reached out to Google for comment, but have yet to hear back.
So if Google is holding onto your data, even when you think it’s not, here’s a tip: Delete it.
How to delete:
Go to Google’s My Activity page.
From there, Google lets you choose what to delete. The process is cumbersome. You pick a date (today, this week, this month, all time) and the category (say, Google Chrome.)
Select your date, hit enter and watch it all go away. Google says deleting the data will mean less effective and speedier searches. I’ve been deleting search histories for years, and Google is still lightning fast for me.
Irish Web developer Dylan Curran was shocked at his findings when he looked at what Google had on him. He tweeted his reaction in a 37-tweet tweetstorm that got widely read, with 4,400 comments and 160,000 retweets.
16. Side-note, if you have Windows 10 installed, this is a picture of JUST the privacy options with 16 different sub-menus, which have all of the options enabled by default when you install Windows 10 pic.twitter.com/oHyfYndTnJ
— Dylan Curran (@iamdylancurran) March 24, 2018
Curran was freaked that Google had kept his location and search history from the Chrome browser, the names of files he had saved for backup on Google Drive and even the ones he had deleted, along with every website he’d visited via Google, going back more than 10 years.
“They are collecting a lot more information than people would be aware of,” he told us.
We spoke to Curran for a #TalkingTech podcast (click the audio below to listen), where Curran called for a “Digital Expiration Act,” to be enacted by lawmakers.
This is a fair compromise, he says. “There is no reason for any company to hold onto our information for more than two to three years. My information from 10 years ago isn’t relevant to any ad I look at now,” he says.
Curran has a point. Google services wouldn’t be what they are without the information we give to the company, but 10 years is overkill.
For myself, while Facebook’s data dump was rather eye-opening (why are they keeping addresses and phone numbers of my friends?), Google’s wasn’t.
In exchange for Google reminding me about upcoming trips, showing me my boarding passes and even creating itineraries for me without asking, Google has been tracking my every move for years since I started using it in the late 1990s, and I’m OK with that.
I can’t imagine living without Google Docs, which has allowed me to write everything I do, for free, and have online access to the files no matter what computer I have. Calendar does a great job of reminding me what’s on my schedule for the day, with updates across smartphone, computer and tablets. I love that every iPhone photo I’ve taken has been backed up automatically to Google Photos and that I can use Google Photos to search for old photos of everything from my old Mazda to an ice cream cone in Venice, Italy.
And don’t get me started on Google Maps and Waze. An extension of my body!
By snooping through my email and tracking my searches, Google has enhanced my life for the better. I wouldn’t go cold turkey on Google, and I doubt any Talking Tech reader would either.