What Google Shares About You

August 23, 2013

It’s no secret to anyone to know that Google keeps every bit of data it collects about each of its users. This data includes, but is not limited to, search phrase history, links clicked, Gmail conversations and so on. A recent filing from Google attorneys confirmed once more that all data is kept and processed “in their ordinary course of business,” which obviously includes spam filtering, selecting relevant ads for users and the individual tuning of search results.


This last piece is still not obvious to most users, but for the last few years each of us has had our very own Google. If you find something funny or unexpected, or you see your own website on the first page of search results, don’t rush to show this to your friends; with the same search request, they will have totally different sites on the first page of results. In fact, your search results and context ads on third-party sites partnering with Google might precisely indicate your interests and habits. And the most embarrassing part- only Google employees and maybe NSA agents have access to Google servers and your secrets, but anyone can peep into this private data just by looking on your browser screen. For example, if you have Google SafeSearch switched off, some quite innocent search requests could possibly produce a lot of explicit pictures in an “Image” search. This would clearly indicate your interest in this kind of content – maybe you clicked similar search results before. Ads on a website are named context-sensitive because of their dependence on your Gmail conversations and/or search results, not website content.

So it’s possible to look at these ads and figure out that you intend to buy a new Chevy, are interested in a medical treatment or are hurrying to fix your home’s roof. Of course, context ads do not always work well, so all these conclusions are just probable assumptions, not proven facts. On the other hand, it doesn’t take significant effort to obtain the aforementioned data. An intruder doesn’t need to hack something to look at all this private data, all that he/she needs is “five minutes to browse the web” from your computer.

An intruder doesn’t need to hack something to look at all this private data, all that he/she needs is “five minutes to browse the web” from your computer.

It takes extra effort to avoid search engine tracking. Google spent a lot of money and put significant effort into identifying its users and distinguishing one from another. There are a multitude of methods to do this. Besides well-known cookies, there are persistent tracking buoys like LSO and Flash cookies and sometimes it’s possible to detect unique browser “fingerprints” – specific headers in a request to download a web page. To get rid of all these trackers, you have to switch off the browser cache and cookies, use special browser plugins to clear other types of local storage, use AdBlock and NoScript extensions and of course, never login to Google services from your browser.

If you implement all these restrictions, the Web becomes quite an unpleasant place to visit, so only the most paranoid users should fully implement these measures. There are other workarounds – you might use a less nosy search engine, like DuckDuckgo. It promises to avoid user-specific search customization and tracking, but you still have to deal with the ever-present Google Analytics tracker on every other webpage. It becomes challenging to avoid Gmail usage as well, so you might use a separate browser to visit Google services. The most fitting candidate would be Google Chrome, which you should avoid for other purposes rather than using Google services – if privacy matters to you.