News Advisor Google is watching: find out what it knows about you
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Google is watching: find out what it knows about you

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Google knows all. It even knows the contents of your emails, as a convicted sex offender found out the hard way last week in the US.

A man was arrested last week after Google found illegal images in his Gmail.
A man was arrested last week after Google found illegal images in his Gmail.

A 41-year-old man from Texas was arrested after Google found child pornography in his Gmail account and tipped off police. The arrest was a win for Google’s new software that trawls millions of email accounts for images of child abuse, The Telegraph reports.

But it was also a reminder of the vast amounts of private data collected, collated and scanned by the advertising giant. Yes, Google is a search business, but it makes its money from advertising, and the more it knows about you the better it can targets its ads to you. Primarily it gets to know you by your search terms, followed by scanning your emails.

So what exactly does Google know about you? The better question is what doesn’t it know, says executive director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at UNSW, David Vaile.

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“Google knows everything about everything because they’ve scanned the entire internet, and they’ve also tracked the vast majority using Google Analytics, which is their tool that feeds back information to website developers but also to themselves,” says Mr Vaile, who is also vice-chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation.

According to Mr Vaile, the company probably knows your age, gender, a lot about your health, your family relationships, politics, sexuality, religion and “a whole lot of other things”.

Google
All your data ends up in one big pile.

It uses this information, gleaned from your interactions with the entire suite of Google products, to build what’s called a ‘psychographic profile’ – a snapshot of you that helps it personalise your pop-up ads.  

One of the reasons it knows so much, according to the director of Canberra University’s Centre for Internet Safety, Alastair MacGibbon, is its new privacy policy, which allows it to share information across all of its forty-plus products.

This means that if you have Google Earth on your phone, a Gmail account, and you use the Chrome browser on your desktop computer while you enter Google searches, all of the data you volunteer ends up in one big pile.

“All of those things get triangulated and married up, such that they know everything about you,” Mr McGibbon says.

The former Federal policeman, who is also security general manager for Dimension Data Australia, says Google holds “a honeypot of us” which, if stolen, misused or accidentally distributed could be “catastrophic”.

“While I don’t doubt the morality of any of these companies, that doesn’t mean it won’t be misused through some failed corporate decision, or that it can’t be stolen,” Mr McGibbon says.

Should you be worried?

AVG Technologies security advisor Michael McKinnon has read several of Google’s security white papers, and spoken with their security experts.

He thinks our data is “in pretty safe hands”. Google may be one of the largest collectors of personal data online, but it does have tight security protocols, and (usually) abides by its own privacy policy, which you agree to when you sign up.

Google search page
Our data is “in pretty safe hands”.

But with so much data in store, Google is both a huge target for hackers, and one mistake away from a disaster.

What exactly does it gather?

1. Your browser, operating system and Internet provider.

2. The websites you visit, the pages you click on, and how long you spend on each one.

3. Whether you’re using a desktop, smartphone or tablet.

4. If you’re a Gmail user, the emails you send and receive. If not, it can still scan any email you send to a Gmail account.

5. If you have an Android phone, and don’t turn off location tracker, it will be logging your movements.

6. For users of Google Now, the company’s version of Siri, it can use all of this data to make predictions on what it thinks you want. Spooky.

What can you do?

People working on laptops in front of the Google logo
See if Google has been tracking your movements.

AVG Technology offers PrivacyFix, a free tool to block trackers and toggle the privacy settings of your Google account.

You can also encrypt your web traffic to protect it from prying eyes. Try services like VyprVPN, Invisible Browsing VPNPrivate Internet AccessCyberGhost VPN, or Express VPN.

Click to find out what Google thinks it knows about you (including your age and gender) here.

See if Google has been tracking your movements here.

Get a list of your data held by Google here.

Download everything Google knows about you here.

Even if you turn off cookie tracking, Google can assign you a unique tracking number based on the versions of your operating system, plug-ins, apps and more. Click to find out if you are trackable via browser fingerprinting.

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