What does Google or Facebook know about me?

Table of Contents

Is Privacy a Myth?

Let’s start by asking you a few questions:

  1. Do you trust the Chrome Incognito mode to keep your search history secret? 
  2. Do you think changing your Facebook privacy settings to “Only me” protects your data? 
  3. Do you think going offline makes your activities invisible to Google and Facebook? 
  4. Do you believe your free VPN service is wiping your tracks perfectly? 

If you’ve answered “Yes” to any of those questions, take a seat. This article is going to break some serious ice for you. 

The answer to all of those above questions is a resounding “No!” None of those things ensure your privacy. 

Also trusting Google or Facebook’s settings to keep your data private is sort of like giving your house keys to a thief and believing that he won’t take advantage of it.

Remember this guy?

Unless you were living under a rock in 2013, you probably do. 

Edward Snowden- the guy who spilled the beans on the National Security Agency spying on not only American citizens but also foreign ones. 

Yep, NSA was spying on the citizens of 193 countries. (And do worry, India was very much a part of that list.)

But strangely enough, not all Americans were actually bothered by the fact that NSA was spying on them. Why? Because, after all, NSA was doing what was needed to scope out terrorists and criminals. Why should an upstanding American citizen feel the need to hide their data? 

Thus began the age-old debate between Privacy vs Security. 

Since the ones on the side of “Security” could flaunt their patriotism and boast about America’s A+ counter-terrorism measures, the concerns regarding the breach of privacy died down for a while. 

And then 2016 happened. Donald Trump happened. 

Before 2016, if you tried telling anyone that Russia had influenced the US elections to make their preferred man the president… people would ask you, “What bad Cold-War spy novel are you reading, man?” 

But it really happened. 

Facebook admitted that it “inadvertently” sold $100k worth of ad space to a Russian “troll farm” so that they could send targeted campaign ads to US voters before the presidential elections. How did they know whom to target? Facebook helped them with their stored up users’ data too of course. 

Take a deep breath and think about that for a second. Facebook ads managed to decide who the next US president was going to be. 

This is when people started to care again. And this is why you should care. 

Your data might not lead to the crowning of the next Donald Trump but you need to be suspicious of those seemingly harmless data giants like Facebook and Google. 

Have you ever wondered how these are free? How can they afford to provide you with so many facilities without charging you anything at all?

Because the sinister truth is: you are what they’re selling. 

Let’s answer a few basic questions first. 

What does Google or Facebook know about me?

To answer this, you first need to understand WHY do Google or Facebook collect data on you. 

Ever seen the pair of shoes you were just looking for in Flipkart, advertised on your Facebook feed? No one is quite that freaked out by these occurrences anymore. 

But what about that one time when you were just talking to your friend about a very specific kind of Korean noodles and the moment you went online- voila! You see an ad for those exact noodles.

This is a good time to freak out. Can Google actually listen to you? Have they tapped into your phone mic? You’ve never even searched for those noodles on Google!

As witchcraft-y as it sounds- no. They can’t really listen in on you but what they can do is even more insane. 

Remember this scene from BBC Sherlock’s “A Study in Pink”?

We were all blown away by how much he could deduce from such minor circumstantial evidence. 

Believe us when we say Google and Facebook can beat Sherlock at his own game. 

You might not have searched for the noodles in particular. But Google could piece together from all your other searches (including your YouTube search history, where you might have binged on several Korean noodles taste test videos) that this is what you would want to buy next. 

And yes, Google CEO, Sundar Pichai can keep on insisting, “Google will never sell any personal information to third parties; and you get to decide how your information is used”… but it’s not that simple. 

Google not only “shares” extremely detailed personal profiles of their users with advertisers, but they also participate in real-time bidding (RTB). In RTB, publishers can auction off ad spaces on their websites or apps. What else exchanges hands during this transaction? Sensitive user data including search histories, geolocation, and device IDs. 

Google’s involvement might not seem obvious at first but you need to take the following facts into account: they purchased DoubleClick, the largest third-party ad network for the Web, in 2007 and bought AdMob, the largest ad server for the mobile application market, in 2009. Both of these have prospered under Google’s wing and continue to dominate the RTB ecosystem to this day. 

Long story short, Google is selling your data. They might say “no” but they are. 

So what do they know about you? Well, everything that helps them to sell you stuff. 

  • Your name, sex, age. 
  • Your Google search history
  • Every website you visit
  • Your location. No, not just where you’re now. Everywhere you’ve been for the past few years. 
  • Your workplace
  • Your home
  • How you travel from your home to your workplace and vice versa
  • All your likes and dislikes (literally, all. Your more… intimate ones as well)
  • Your voice recordings. Yep. This one is probably the creepiest. These come from your talks with your Google Assistant. You can’t trust her either. 

Be honest. How many times have you participated in one of these Facebook quizzes?

Yes, we know how crucial it is for you to know what you would look like as Marie Antoinette. That’s why it breaks our heart to inform you that these quizzes are just another trick to steal your data. 

They ask you for your name and gender at the very least. But even if they asked you for your email address so that they could send you the quiz results, you’d most probably hand that over as well. And if you don’t check exactly what information they are asking for, you might end up giving them your friend list and your photos as well.  

Also, the Cookies. Ever seen these messages at the bottom of the page when you visit a website?

“We use cookies to make your experience of our websites better. By using and further navigating this website you accept this. Detailed information about the use of cookies on this website is available by clicking on more information.” this website is available by clicking on more information.

These help the websites remember you, your logins, your searches, and your shopping carts. So these are meant to make your experience on the site smoother. But you do agree to give away an enormous quantity of personal information without ever bothering to search for “more information.”

In fact, when was the last time you read a “Terms and Conditions” page? This is exactly why Pichai’s claim that users can choose what data they want o share, is baseless. 

Yes, people should be more vigilant about what personal information they are giving away but the responsibility to stop the breach of privacy should not fall solely upon them. Google and Facebook should take responsibility for their actions as well. 

Till they do, let us figure out…

How to stop Google from collecting your data?

  • First and foremost, head over to Activity Controls and change the settings. Under “Web & App Activity,” go to “Manage Activity” and delete the sections of your searches that you don’t want Google to keep track of. 

To stop Google from tracking your locations, head over to “Location History.” Here you can delete your entire location history or choose a particular stop to delete by clicking on “Remove Stop from Day”

If you scroll further down, you’ll see that you can also delete your YouTube Search and Watch History under “YouTube History” along with your Voice Searches under “Voice & Audio Activity.”

You can also change these settings from your Android phone. However, Google has far fewer deep hooks in Apple. 

  • If you want to see exactly how much Google knows about you already, head over to Ad Personalization. You’ll be able to see exactly what Google thinks you are interested in. You can strike a few off the list by clicking “turn off.”

Or, you can use the toggle switch at the top of the page to opt-out of ad personalization completely. But this is not going to stop Google from collecting your data or showing you ads. It’s just going to sever the link between the two.

  • Invest in good VPNs. Free VPNs are not going to cut it. Why? Because just like free Google and Facebook, free VPNs also need something from you if not your money. Free VPNs also feed on your data.

But not all paid VPNs are safe either. Remember the 14 Eyes rule. If your VPN is located in any of these 14 countries, that’s not good news for you. These 14 countries share surveillance information regularly and hence the police or government agencies of the constituent countries might request this information as well. 

NordVPN is pretty effective when it comes to privacy because they’re registered in Panama which has no digital surveillance laws whatsoever. Moreover, NordVPN cannot be forced to surrender their users’ logs because they don’t preserve logs at all! 

Out of these, we cannot assure you that the first two steps will 100% guarantee your privacy because as we’ve already established- Google lies. 

This is why 62% of Americans confessed that they think it is impossible to go through life without being tracked by Google, Facebook, or their own government. 

Source: https://pewrsr.ch/3cLjUet

However, since India has almost no digital privacy laws compared to the US, we should be even more aware of whom we are handing our information out to. 

India’s proposed Personal Data Protection Bill, modeled after EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) might have started out as a good idea but the recent suggestion of making Google and Facebook store personal data locally seems shifty. This is like handing out our personal search history to the government on a silver platter. 

Remember, in the US it might have started out with harmless targeted ads for consumer goods, but then it led to a foreign nation’s interference in their presidential election. 

Are we any less impressionable than the Americans? We’ll let you answer that question. 

Ready for friendly, professional help?

Madhurima Sen Wrytx

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