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Would you like to learn what Google knows about you?

Sven Krumrey

When I was young, there was a TV show called "That's your life". A more or less famous person stat in a studio while the host held a book and read out details about various stages of his or her life. Every now and then, an old companion would come rushing in, hug the guest and start chatting about past events. Google has something similar to offer to all of us - and I'm still vacillating between fascination and trepidation.

Log in and start wondering

Google strives to become more transparent and has set up https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity to allow users with a Google account to dive deeply into their (Google) past and find out how much data the search giant has collected about them. This collection not only includes past search queries (that already quite accurately reflect our interests, purchases or activities) but much more! Google Chrome, Maps, Plus, Photos, Hangouts, Calendar, Mail, Youtube - this well of information is more like a bottomless pit.

Where were you on 12 May 2014? Maybe Myactivitiy can help you. Google will store this information in their Google Maps location history, if enabled. This way, I was able to find out that I was at a supermarket in the North of Hamburg in the middle of 2014 and trace back the stages of a past vacation. Every detail was laid out perfectly on a map, movement profiles were available for individual days including departure, itinerary and destination. I don't know about you but I was unaware that location tracking would be so comprehensive. So I clicked my way through individual days and learned (again) when I went shopping, visited friends or went on a side trip.

That was in Dresden obviously… That was in Dresden obviously…

Oddities were found under My Activities > Voice & Audio. I had only used voice commands for a brief time before I disabled this feature but that was apparently enough to compile a collection of genuine spoken search queries (good lord, I sound grumpy!) and rather cryptic recordings that were filed under "No transcript available". I listened to myself while driving, heard a TV newscaster read out the news and another person coughing. Something must have gone wrong, maybe I accidentally activated this feature while I kept my cellphone in my pocket or ordinary conversations were misinterpreted as voice commands. Mildly scary.

To be fair, you can freely delete or disable features in this portion of your Google account and, honestly, I wouldn't have thought that Google would even offer this option in the first place. Delete single days or entire timelines, the choice is yours. They have also tried to make access to these powerful databases as easy and intuitive as possible, most likely to counteract common accusations of data hogging. How much you trust these features (including the delete option!) is up to you.

Personalized ads is where it gets interesting. You can decide whether Google will use their data to present you with custom ads, tailored to your (alleged) needs, or generic offers. If you disable this feature, you will still see ads but they won't target specific interests. Not an easy decision. Do I prefer generic ads that target the general population or offers that might genuinely interest me?

Finally, I wanted to know exactly how much data Google collected about me. Luckily, I could download the entire archive which, in my case, spanned four separate Zip archives of 7.3 GB each. This data stems from 24 different services and reviewing it would require several days of intensive work. I'll wager that no secret service agency in the world has collected as much data about me as Google has. The strange thing is that this actually makes my life easier and saves me time. My interests and habits are known to Google and that makes navigation, searching, cloud usage or shopping more straightforward. And decent service requires a solid data foundation: the computers in Star Trek Enterprise are so smart because they know so much about the ship and its crew. But that's off topic and maybe material for another article.

Sci-Fi computers tend to know almost everything

Let's face it: We all know that the various Google services only exist as long as we offer our data in return. If you use them you agree to that. Yet it's remarkable that Google is somewhat coming clean about its data collection business (although I don't believe I've actually seen everything they have on me) and allows users to review this data. This practice has two effects on me: I respect their endeavor to become more open and I find it mildly scary to see how much they already know about me. Knowing that data is being collected is not the same as actually seeing the results. I deleted and disabled a lot but I now have to think long and hard whether I will continue to use Google.

Are you still going to use Google and would you like to keep data hogging to a minimum? No problem, disable logging for web, app, voice and audio activities, device information and the Youtube (search) history. Simply go through each item on the page and delete as much as you can. You might also want to consider turning your back on Google altogether and start using alternatives such as http://www.ixquick.com/, http://www.openstreetmap.org/, http://www.duckduckgo.com/ or http://www.startpage.com/. These are search engines and maps that aren't as data hungry as Google. They may not be as comfortable or convenient (since they haven't and won't collect as much data about you) but they work. See for yourself!

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