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In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that exposed the selling of a treasure trove of personal information on 50 million Americans, many are now questioning how much information they are willing to share with Facebook.
Personal photos, political views, chat logs, phone records and much more are all being stored on Facebook waiting to be sold or stolen.
But few realize that Google actually knows far more about them than even Facebook. By providing dozens of free services to consumers, Google is able to collect data about multiple aspects of their lives and then compile it into a frighteningly detailed record.
For Google, consumers themselves are the product it sells to advertisers and, it is safe to assume, to curious governments as well. In a recent article, Irish web developer Dylan Curran downloaded both his Facebook and Google data files as part of an investigation into the amount of data collected.
Although different for everyone, his Facebook file contained around 600 megabytes of raw data while the dossier that Google kept on him weighed in at 5.5 gigabytes of data. But how much can Google actually know about us?
The most obvious piece of data is a user's Google search history. Google has become synonymous with searching the Internet and many often forget that every keystroke is recorded (even when deleted before searching). While some may argue that using the search history of dangerous criminals (bombs or poisons) to convict them, there are few among us who haven't searched for something that wouldn't look good in public or in the hands of the government.
Beyond a simple log of an individual's search history though, Google uses its pattern-matching algorithm to predict gender, age, political views, interests and a host of other details with uncanny accuracy. If anyone actually clicks an ad, that is, of course, logged and tracked to further refine targeting.
Gmail and Google Calendar are other obvious sources of data for users and the company landed itself in hot water several years ago when it was discovered that Google reads the contents of emails and uses that to target advertisements.
Conversations that the public believes are private are far from it and by accepting a free product such as Gmail, users are essentially surrendering access of their private emails to Google, the NSA or even, in some cases, hackers. As for Google Calendar, a complete record of events is stored, including when, where and who they included, a useful piece of data when mapping an individual's relationships.
Touted as a free and cloud-based alternative to Microsoft Office, the popular services known as Google Docs, Slides and Sheets have been adopted not only by millions of individuals but by corporations and schools all over the world.
The catch? The documents are now accessible to Google and everything typed in is logged. Deleted files, researchers have discovered, are not entirely gone and files stored on Google Drive always leave a trail as well, even after being removed. Best not store anything truly private in a Google Docs file.
YouTube and Google News are yet more sources of data on users' habits, tracking everything individuals watch, read and comment on, all linked to individual profiles in the Google servers. Taken by itself, an individual's search history (including image searches) may not paint a complete picture, but link this with his YouTube viewing habits, the text of emails, files stored in the cloud, events on Google Calendar and a record of Google News articles read, and the picture becomes much clearer.
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Google began its domination of the smartphone market with the invention of the Android operating system that Google made free to all smart phone developers. Now installed on 82% of all smart phones around the world, Android allows Google an incredible level of control and access to users' lives.
From the use of GPS location tracking that allows Google to keep a record of every place smartphone users have ever been, and for how long, to keeping the metadata on all photos taken on Android phones, there is little that can be done with a smartphone that Google does not track and log into its records.
In the abstract, users may know that Google, through its Google Maps database, maintains location data for years worth of movements, but to see a life drawn across a map is something else entirely.
Records of all apps installed and every interaction with them, GoogleFit data, every device ever connected to a Google Account and a user's contact list all become useful pieces of data to be fed into the Google algorithms and brokered to government and corporate clients. Pay strict attention to the permissions you are forced to grant the next time you download an app from Google Play store.
With ownership of Android, Google also gains access to device permissions such as the microphone and video camera, though it is still not clear how much of this data is being used to target ads and track behavior and what capabilities exist to use the microphone clandestinely in the background.
Google knows far more than the Stasi secret police of East Germany could ever have dreamed. Make no mistake, this is the surveillance State, even though conducted by corporations, and we have ignorantly and foolishly welcomed it in with open arms.
Smartphones and the Internet now play such central roles in the lives of most that Google's dominance amounts to the perfect tool for monitoring and control over billions of people. So, in the rush to "delete Facebook" should we not consider, too, how much of our lives we have surrendered to Google?