Google is so universal now, many people don’t realize how much of a reach it has into our lives. We’re like fish swimming in its water. this might be the reason why using a private search engine became a popular choice.
The fact is that Google is neither neutral nor entirely safe. From perpetuating disturbing fake-news echo chambers to tracking its users’ locations and recording their voices, there are a lot of reasons to be leery of the world’s largest search engine.
Google’s data collection is massive in scope and highly invasive. To get yourself off their radar, you’ll have to make some changes in how you use the Internet.
It’s totally possible though. By using alternatives like private search engines and deleting the records that Google already has on you, you can get control of your information and protect yourself.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the issue and how to stay safe online.
What does Google know about me?
Bad news first: Google knows a lot about you.
It’s a sprawling information empire, collecting personal data from all corners of the web. Here’s an incomplete list of how Google gathers your data:
- Searches: The obvious one. This includes searches for images, news, and, disturbingly, actual recordings of your voice if you use Google’s voice search. It records not only what you search for but what results you click on.
- Google Apps: Google Docs, Spreadsheets, Calendar, etc.
- Location: You don’t even have to use Google Maps for them to track your whereabouts. If you’re signed into your Google account and carrying your phone, tablet or laptop, it goes on record. It’s no secret, either. Just check out your timeline page to see where you’ve been over the past few years.
- Emails: Every message that passes through Gmail, sent or received, is analyzed.
- Twitter: Since a partnership deal made last year, Google now has full access to tweets.
- Browser use: That’s right, if you use Google Chrome it keeps a record of what sites you visit.
- YouTube: YouTube is owned by Google, and all your activity there goes into their database.
I could go on. Basically, everything you do on the Internet leaves a footprint on Google.
This information can be used to create a very detailed profile of any user. When you know someone’s age, gender, race, location, travel patterns, search history, contact list, interests, and hobbies, what they buy, what news they read, what messages they send… you know a lot about that person.
Google claims they don’t sell or share personal information that can be traced back to an individual. However, all of this data is stored for 9 months before it is made anonymous, and it’s unclear how effective this anonymization is. It’s safe to assume that if someone really wanted to access this data about you, they would be able to.
Can this data be used against you?
Unsettling as it is to think about huge amounts of detailed personal information sitting in a database somewhere, is it really such a problem?
It doesn’t take too much imagination to think of how this could all go wrong, ranging from merely annoying to outright dangerous.
- Your data is sold to third parties, who exploit it for invasive, targeted ad campaigns
- Along the way, this information could easily leak and end up in the wrong hands
- Hackers can (and regularly do) gain access to sensitive information, making you vulnerable to fraud, identity theft or even blackmail
- Law enforcement is allowed to access this information, including tracking your whereabouts through the Timeline feature. Anything on your Gmail, Google Voice, search history, contacts and connected devices is fair game for investigation.
How can I delete this information?
There are two approaches you can try to take control of your personal information.
First, you can go on the offensive. Google does make it possible for you to access much of this information and delete it.
It might be interesting to head over to the ad settings page first, to see what consumer profile Google has created for you. This will include a detailed list of interests, based on your searches, YouTube use, and online purchases.
After all, Google’s top use of personal data if for advertising: showing you ads that are targeted to your interests and demographic, and that follow you around from site to site.
To delete your search history, go to your history page, open the menu (three vertical dots) and select “Delete activity by.” This will give you several parameters (date, subject, etc.) to remove searches.
To delete your location record, go to that timeline page and click on the hub on the bottom-right of the map for Settings. From there, you can pause or delete your history.
And to erase much of your online presence, you can use the Swedish website Deseat.me. Enter your Gmail address into this website. It will allow you to pull up all the accounts associated with it and delete them.
These are good measures to take, and it’s certainly a relief to see all those records wiped clean. But is it really effective? Or does Google have all of this data backed up somewhere you can’t reach, just in case too many privacy-minded people find out how to erase their footprints?
Call me paranoid but my money’s on Option 2. That’s why I recommend an ounce of prevention: using alternatives to Google services whenever possible.
How to stay off Google’s radar
Your first move, if you have an Android phone, is to deactivate location tracking and reporting.
Then, start transferring your online activities to service providers that respect your privacy.
Instead of Google Search: There are many alternatives to Google’s search engine. Bing or Yahoo are the obvious ones but they’re not much better than Google when it comes to data collection and tracking.
Instead, I recommend using a private search engine. MyPrivateSearch is a great choice. It’s available as an extension to Chrome, and it’s clean, simple design makes it easy to use.
Although it has access to all search results from Google and Bing, when you make a search it redirects you to a MyPrivateSearch page where you can browse without being tracked.
Instead of Gmail: try Protonmail, a crowdfunded Swiss email server with end-to-end encryption. No name or personal information is required to sign up, and it’s protected by strict Swiss privacy laws.
Instead of Google Docs: try OX Documents. Their full suite includes text, spreadsheets and presentations. It is fully encrypted and doesn’t feed your information into some giant database. For most of its services, you don’t need to provide any identifying information.
Instead of Google Maps: use MapQuest. Yes, it still exists! MapQuest is making a modest comeback, in part because it offers offline use for people who don’t want to be tracked. It’s still clunkier than Google Maps, but it has some nice features and it’s much less invasive.
Avoiding Google takes some extra care. You have to be very mindful of your use of the Internet and connected devices if you want to be truly free.
However, I think it’s worth it to build the habit. With a private search engine, encrypted email and just a little attention, you’ll have much more online freedom and you can relax about your data security.