The Sneaky Ways Google Knows Everything About You

There’s nothing creepier than doing a quick Google search for vacuum cleaners, then mysteriously finding a Dyson ad on your Facebook page moments later. That’s not happening by chance. Google collects a lot of your personal data to improve your online experience, target ads, and entice you to spend more money. So, if you ever get the feeling you’re being watched, you’re probably right.

Yes, the same company that was once accused of violating federal wiretap law when it began collecting emails and other personal data to build its popular Google Street View program is also using your online habits to make money. Its Gmail, Google search, and Android products serve as incognito data collectors. But it’s no secret. A run-through of its privacy policy clearly states that Google knows this information. The how much it knows, and the sophistication by which it gathers it, may be surprising to you.

Here is exactly what Google tracks, what it knows about you, and how much your information is worth to other buyers.

1. What you search online

booking flight travel traveler search ticket reservation

Your online search history is used to get you to spend more money. | iStock.com/scyther5

Google uses your search history to send you personalized ads. Although slightly deceptive, it’s the bread and butter of their business model. Roughly 90% of Google’s entire revenue is from advertising.

So, when you search for something either in the Chrome browser, via your smartphone, or in another app like Maps or Waze, Google is tracking your activity by default to provide you a unique, customized experience that conveniently fits your current needs or interests.

Surely, this info is helpful to law enforcement agencies hoping to catch dangerous criminals. But for the everyday American, it’s simply a way to get you to spend more money. After all, your search for the “best coffee maker for apartment living” only helps Google build your distinct user profile to be capitalized on — or sold — elsewhere (but more on that later).

Next: Apple’s Siri isn’t the only virtual assistant listening in.

2. What you’ve said aloud

handsome man playing with cell phone

Your conversations are recorded. | iStock.com/zhudifeng

The Google Now program works like just like Siri, but on a variety of smartphones and operating systems. Recode points out that this feature allows Google to remind you to pick up milk, estimate commute times to and from work, and tell you where you parked your car — all highly convenient for someone with a lot on their mind.

But Google is also recording and storing bits and pieces of every audio command you’ve ever made. This data is often sent to Google Adwords, which helps personalize the ads that show up in your devices later. Not too terrible. Of course, there is the occasional viral rumor that accuses Google of accidentally recording private conversations even when the program is not in use.

Next: Your purchase history is not a secret.

3. What you’ve bought in the past

Woman shopping online on tablet

Your shopping patterns are analyzed. | iStock.com/Rawpixel Ltd

A ZeroHedge article found that Google Dashboard keeps record of all app downloads purchased from the Google store, including the information saved there. For instance, the author noticed both expired and active credit cards saved, shipping addresses, and countless itemized purchases since 2009 listed in the Google Wallet app. It takes little time to connect the dots between this information and how Google can use the profile to influence your spending habits later.

Next: How do they know who you talk to?

4. The contacts and data in your smartphone

Google Inbox email app

No email is secret. | Google.com

Google has Big Brother tendencies when it comes to discerning who you communicate with. The same ZeroHedge article showed Google knew all about the author’s email history (even the drafts he deleted) and his chat history from the moment his account was created. It also kept track of who he emailed most frequently, where that person is located, and the number of passwords saved in his Chrome browser.

Next: Location, location, location

5. Where you’ve been

Google can track your location history. | Googleblog.blogspot.com

If you give Google the go-ahead, then it will monitor your location history using your smartphone. Sharing your location is another way Google can find out nearly everything about you.

Google’s Location History page shows a detailed list of everywhere you’ve been, in addition to your home and work, which likely saved in Google Maps. After all, an advertisement for a concert in Los Angeles is irrelevant to a consumer who lives in Detroit, right?

Next: A convenient partnership with YouTube

6. What you watch on YouTube

a screenshot of a youtube screen

YouTube and Google know everything about your video history. | screenshot via YouTube

Google bought YouTube in 2006 for $1.65 billion and it was one of the best tech deals ever made. The pair combined to create yet another set of insights into consumer preferences that determined what videos you search, when you watch them, and the device you were using to do so. Knowing everything from your Justin Bieber obsession to your affinity for horror movie trailers allows Google to sell targeted ads against these clips.

According to eMarketer, Google banked more than $5.2 billion in 2016 using your information to convince other companies that you’ll spend money on their products should they advertise here.

Next: Who does Google think you are

They’ve used this information to build a personal profile

Hispanic salesperson wearing a suit

Google knows you. | iStock.com/Antonio_Diaz

Want to combat Google’s efforts to get into your pockets? You need to know who Google thinks you are and what information it tracks to serve you ads.

Google uses the above methods to build the most accurate profile, including your age, gender, location, income, and other demographic data. As stated in its privacy policy, Google can use this information for its own benefit or sell it to others (though they swear that never happens).

Next: How much is your information worth to others?

How much is your personal data worth?

Man looking at futuritic display

Your data is for sale. | NicoElNino/iStock/Getty Images

If your information is public, then it’s fair game to others. While we can’t say that Google outrights sells your information, there are a group of companies called data brokers who definitely do.

These companies collect and sell personal data — with or without your consent — that’s used to verify identity, help marketers, and help perform detailed “people searches.” This means your social media history, tech data, and general interests are up-for-grabs. Visual Capitalist says these companies generate about $426 million in revenue selling your data.

So yes, when you buy a house, the local home improvement store may use this information to send you ads. You can thank a data broker — and inadvertently, Google’s sneaky information algorithms — for that.

Follow Lauren on Twitter @la_hamer.

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