Report: Understanding Google Privacy - What does Google Know About You?


Google started life as a search engine a long time ago in 1998.

It's objective was simple back then. If you were looking for information, you went to Google, typed in what you where looking for and Google helped you find websites that had that information.

Today however, Google doesn't just help you find information on the web. It also helps you create and share information.

Google's new ability to help you find, create and share information easily on the Internet also means that the way Google interacts with you today has changed significantly compared to 1998.

Naturally, their Privacy Policy and official Terms of Service have also changed.

Here is a less technical explanation of why you should be aware of Google's new privacy policy...



A good question to ask is...why does Google need a privacy policy?

The reason is simple, Google makes the bulk of its money from selling advertising space on most of its free services. In other words, advertisers are Google's customers.

Unless you are paying to use Google's services, such as in the case of Google Apps for Business, you are not Google's customer. What you are is Google's USER of free services.

Google's real customer is the advertiser who advertises to you when you use Google's free services. And like any other customer, the advertiser is demanding. However, the advertiser is also willing to pay a lot of money to have one thing from Google...information about you.

This point cannot be overstated. Information about YOU is valuable to advertisers.

The basic principle that advertisers live by is that having detailed and accurate Data (or information) about their target market is always better than guessing in order to come up with an effective ad. The advertiser needs to know something about you like what country you are in; the language you speak; your gender; age etc.

It is for this reason the Google needs to have a privacy policy, to make explicit to everyone involved exactly how much information about you, the user, it's willing to share with its customers, the advertisers.

For Google's business to thrive its privacy policy needs to be well balanced and well thought out. On one hand, as a user of Google's free services, you don't want advertisers to know exactly who you are i.e. your name, home address and telephone number. On the other hand, this is exactly the type of information that advertisers will pay a lot of money to have.

Life was simple for Google when it was just a search engine. But nowadays it has multiple complimentary services that it can use to profile its "signed in" users. For example Google has Google Maps, where you can share your physical address with your friends; then Picasa for pictures, YouTube for videos, and Gmail for emails.

So if you use all of these services, which I do myself, then potentially Google has a lot of information about you that it can sell to advertisers.

No doubt, when people first realise the potential for Google to sell this information about them, they feel a sense of eeriness creeping up their spines. It is also for this reason that any change to Google's privacy policy creates a storm in the media with frenzied reporters quick to label Google as "evil".

But in reality this is how the Internet works nowadays. Their are potentially a lot of other companies that have just as much information about you as Google does. For example Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter are all popular FREE services that also sell ADVERTISING to their REAL customers about you the USER.

Facebook in particular, knows a lot about you if you actively use it. It knows your friends, your family, where you live, work and play. Additionally, via a little button called the "Like" button, it also knows what you potentially "like". This Like button is one of the most significant contributors to Facebook becoming the most valuable company on the Internet.

Another company that knows a lot about you but may be sitting in your blind spot is your Internet Service Provider or ISP. Yes, your ISP knows where you live, your name, and potentially knows all the websites you visit everyday.

Unless you actively take steps to protect your privacy on the Internet using some stringent methods, it is actually safer to assume that you don't have any privacy on the Internet.

Given this background to privacy on the Internet, on closer inspection Google actually does more than most companies to be transparent and to give you tools to manage your privacy. And Google collecting information about you is not all about selling it to advertisers either.

According to their privacy policy Google has two objectives for collecting information about you:

  1. To improve its services so it can provide you with better tools and
  2. To show you more personalized adverts that are relevant to you.
However, Google will NOT sell to advertisers your personally identifiable information. So information like your name, physical address, telephone number or any other information that a third party can use to personally identify you will not be given to a third party. To find out more about this you can read Google's recent response to the American congress here

Google also has a transparency policy which requires that it makes it clear how much information it actually has about you. If you are interested in finding out how much Google knows about you, then log into your Google Account and go to this dashboard.

If you want to remove or delete any information from Google's services then go to this website which has all the tools and instructions you need: http://www.dataliberation.org/

Google also gives you the option to use some of it's services without creating an account. For example you can still use its search engine to search the Internet or watch a video on YouTube without the need to sign in. 

Apart from advertisers, Governments are also keen on accessing User information in the name of "national security". However, without following legal proceedings, Google does not release any information to Governments and Google will always notify any User affected by any such request from a government.

And in keeping with the spirit of transparency, Google also makes it known which Governments across the globe are making the most requests to access User information. You can see this in action here.  

Perhaps one of the most significant thing that Google has done regarding User privacy is to make it easy for any User to remove data from Google's services. In its privacy policy, Google makes it clear that the data you put on any of its services belongs to you and you can remove this data at any time for whatever reason using these Data Liberation tools.

In conclusion, you will be hard pressed to find any Internet based company today that has better tools to help you manage how much data that that company has about you. To see Google's full list of tools visit this link here. And to learn more about Google's privacy controls visit the Good to Know website here.

You can also read Google's new privacy policy here.

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