Data Privacy a Myth.
You know Google and Facebook stalk you. But what data do Google and Facebook actually store about you?
Let me start by asking you a few questions:
- Do you trust the Chrome Incognito mode to keep your search history secret?
- Does changing your Facebook privacy settings to “Only me” protects your data?
- Do you think going offline makes your activities invisible to Google and Facebook?
- Can you trust your free VPN service to wipe your tracks perfectly?
If you’ve answered “Yes” to any of those questions, take a seat. This article is going to blow your mind.
The answer to all of those above questions is a resounding “No!” None of those things ensure your privacy. Not only do you need to know why Google and Facebook stores your data. You need to know exactly what data do Google and Facebook store about you!
Also trusting Google or Facebook’s settings to keep your data private is sort of like living with a thief and trusting him with your house keys, which you believe has a single access.
In this article, I will answer all of your questions. Is data collection really harmless? How do Google and Facebook collect your data? Is there any way to stop them from storing your data?
Why Data Collection Can be Dangerous
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.
The Great Facebook Data Collection Scandal
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.
Cambridge Analytica also used Facebook data of 87 million users to influence the Brexit Referendum.
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.
Why Does Google and Facebook Collect Data About Me?
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.
What Does Google Do With My Data? Does Google Sell Data?
Google will never sell any personal information to third parties; and you get to decide how your information is used.Sundar Pichai, Google CEO
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.
What Data Do Google and Facebook Store?
Wondering what these data giants 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 my 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.
So the question shouldn’t just be: What data do Google and Facebook store about you? It should rather be: What data do Google and Facebook store about everyone you know?
What Are Cookies and Should You Accept Them?
Ah, the cookies. Ever seen these messages at the bottom of the page when you visit a website?
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 to 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.
Wondering how else Google collects your data? Let’s hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. Whatever I am going to list next comes directly from Google’s own privacy policies.
How Does Google Collect Your Data?
Again, remember- this is Google’s own confession. According to their Privacy Policies, they only store your information for the purpose of advertising. And advertising is what keeps Google and many other websites free. So, these are the sources from which Google collects your data:
From Any App/Website That Uses Google Tools or Google Ads
What this means is that Google itself is not the only organization that is collecting your data. Several of the other apps and websites that you use also supply your data to Google.
You often sign in with Google or Facebook to avoid lengthy registration processes, right? It seems convenient for you. But what you’re actually doing is handing out information to Google or Facebook directly. Now they know about your purchase or browsing history on that site along with your personal information.
Why do these sites hand out information to Google? To keep providing free service. Unless there’s something that Google is gaining from these apps, it has no reason to extend its help. And Google does help out these free sites and apps a lot. Plenty of these sites use Google Analytics or a variety of Google tools. Ever wondered why these tools are free? Because they are extracting information from you.
The same thing happens with the sites or apps that utilize Google or Facebook Ads. And not even just that. Even if a website simply embeds a video from YouTube, Google still gains access to that site’s information. Why? Because YouTube is a Google property.
No matter how little you borrow from Google, Google makes you pay in data.
What data do Google and Facebook store? Anything and everything that allows them to show targeted ads. So, it’s obvious that your Ads Personalization profile is the piece of information that it holds dear the most.
This is why Google ads haunt you wherever you go. Through this information not only does Google understand what you want to buy now. It can also predict what you will attempt to buy next.
This information is collected from ALL your searches. Not just the ones with transactional or commercial intent. This means even if you are looking for road maps, Google still collects this information to know where you were. To show you ads based on this.
But you can turn Ads Personalization off. How? Keep reading till the end.
This one is really creepy. Google stores your voice. Sure, their logic is that they need to store samples of your voice to aid voice searches. But it’s not just conversations with your Google Assistant that it stores.
Voicemail greetings, voicemail messages, and even recorded conversations. Google stores it all.
You must have heard about Alexa going all silent when you ask her “Are you recording me?” That’s a way more problematic issue than you think it is. Alexa doesn’t just switch on when you call for her. The device listens to you all the time because it keeps trying to detect its name in your conversations. And it is impossible to stop it from recording you. These voice clips are then sent to actual humans for auditing purposes.
Google might not be quite that creepy but do keep in mind that your voice searches are not private. Neither are the directions that you ask for on Google Maps.
Face Match is one of Google’s newest yet most controversial features. It was not intended to be controversial. The purpose was fairly simple and mercantile. This feature which was available on Google Nest Hub Max was meant to make your life easier.
Once it recognizes your face, it shows photos, messages, appointments, and of course, ads that are tailored to you. That’s not a problem, right?
Wrong. The BLM movement saw an upsurge of police departments using data from facial recognition software to arrest protestors. A company called Clearview specifically sold data containing the photos collected from social media to police departments.
In such an atmosphere, Google, Apple, and Amazon have all come under fire for constantly recording people. And as I have mentioned before, like Alexa, Nest Hub Max cannot really stop recording you. It’s always searching for your facial match.
Had Google been honest about not sharing your data with anyone at all, this wouldn’t have been an issue. But it is an issue because all this data gets stored on the cloud. And the cloud is not immune to hacking. Neither is Google immune to the laws of a country.
The immense information bank that it yields is not the problem. The problem is that this bank is not secure and Google is not at all transparent about it.
It’s not a surprise that Google tracks your every step. How else would you be using Google Maps? Google stores your travel history for months to determine which routes you frequent the most.
Sure, it helps you out by giving you driving instructions and showing you which roads will have maximum traffic. But it also tracks your location to show you targeted ads.
Say you happen to frequent a secondhand bookstore, you might get flooded with suggestions of secondhand book sites.
The problem starts when you try switching off your location tracking. This is not something that completely works. Google still does track your location but under other pretenses.
For example, your IP address is still tracked and this does act as a geographical marker. If you intend to check the weather or the time of sunrise, Google still has to track your geographical location for this.
The problem isn’t that Google collects your location data for some specific purposes. The problem is that it keeps on storing it indefinitely. And there’s no real way to stop it even if you want to.
This one is really, really concerning.
Yes, Google stores your credit or debit card information when you make purchases online. You already knew that and aren’t very bothered about it. That’s fine. But did you know Google keeps a record of every online purchase that you make?
Wondering how? Through Gmail. You receive your order updates in your inbox, right? Google maintains a neat ledger of every purchase you make. Also when you made it and how much you paid for it. Don’t believe me? Go and check the “Payments and Subscriptions” section in Google Account Activity.
And not just online purchases. Google can track your offline purchases too.
Did you know about the secret Mastercard and Google merger that happened in 2017? Probably not. Because neither of the companies wanted to advertise this data exchange. But this allowed Google to show related online ads for offline purchases made using Mastercard.
Google can basically look inside your wallet and make an assumption about you as a customer. And remember, Google doesn’t benefit from keeping this information to itself. It sells this information to the big techs so that they can look into your wallet too.
Sundar Pichai can keep telling you that Google won’t sell your information. But take a look at the real Terms and Conditions:
“We also collect the content you create, upload, or receive from others when using our services. This includes things like email you write and receive, photos and videos you save, docs and spreadsheets you create, and comments you make on YouTube videos.”Sundar Pichai, Google CEO
Ask yourself this. Why would Google stalk every single aspect of your life had it absolutely nothing to gain from this information?
How to stop Google from collecting your data?
Now you know what data Google and Facebook store about you. Time to learn how to stop them.
Google Activity Control
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!
Here’s a good one. What data do Google and Facebook store when you have NordVPN? Everything that it did before- except, now it has no idea who you are or where you’re from!
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.
So, did you get an answer to your question: What data do Google and Facebook store?
Hopefully yes. The answer is: Everything that allows them to target you as a customer.
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.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions:
No. Google is owned by Alphabet Inc, an American multinational conglomerate. Mark Zuckerberg owns Facebook.
Several ways. First, if you visit a website using Google, the website is going to retarget you. That is, they are going to show those ads on Facebook to convince you to return to the site. Also, if websites add Facebook pixels to their sites, they directly return browsing data to Facebook. Facebook Pixel is an analytics tool much like Google Analytics. If you use it, it uses your data in return. Facebook can also track your IP address.
Facebook itself says no but according to the 4000 pages of leaked data found by NBC, yes- it does. Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg allegedly doles out private data of Facebook users to favoured partner companies. At the same time, it denies this information to its competitors. Previously this exchange of information was performed directly in exchange for money. Money still exchanges hands but in a different way. For example, Amazon benefits from Facebook’s data collection because Amazon pays a lot for advertising.
Facebook uses your data for the same purpose that Google does- targeted marketing. However, it doesn’t just sell your data, it sells access to YOU. Moreover, it can target you even if you are not actively searching for something. It has a feature for “Lookalike Audience.” This allows them access to people who seem like they might have similar tastes. It sounds innocent but it’s not. Murika, the developer of a gambling game, targeted people susceptible to gambling through this method. This same method can be used to target more gullible people during election campaigns.
Exactly what Facebook does. Use it for targeted marketing. Google can collect data about you from a variety of platforms. Basically any website that uses Google Analytics at all. It uses this information to create a detailed ad profile about you.
Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm, used the data of 87 million Facebook users for political advertising. Not only did it interfere with the 2016 Presidential elections in the US, it also influenced the Brexit referendum. In 2018, the US Senate Judiciary Committee summoned Mark Zuckerberg for questioning regarding data privacy. His answers were suspiciously vague. It was revealed that Facebook could collect the data of people even while they were not using Facebook.
Besides the incredibly personal information you hand over to Facebook voluntarily, it knows a lot more. Facebook knows the websites and apps that you use. It knows what you are browsing or purchasing. It knows what you are doing on the web even when you are not on Facebook. They can also track your IP address. Also, remember that if it knows about you, it knows all about your friends as well. Some Facebook quizzes even take control of your gallery.