Is Google spying? Your every move online may be being tracked and analysed by Google…

Are Google spying on you? Just how much do they know?

fictional Google-branded CCTV camera
How often do you use Google? Once a week? Every day? Did you realise this: every time you search using Google; see Google’s Adsense adverts; visit one of the thousands of sites that use Google’s web statistics analysis - or EVERY SINGLE website you visit if you have Google’s browser toolbars installed; whenever you check your Gmail account, use GoogleDocs to write a letter, or use most any of Google’s other services… you are identifying yourself to Google, the web’s biggest spy outfit.

How much does Google know about you?

Have you ever asked yourself that question - just how much does Google know about you? What could they infer from the sites you visit, the adverts you click on and the phrases you search for? Google can store your documents, e-mails and contacts for you, so you can conveniently access them from anywhere. And they can conveniently own great swathes of information about millions of people. I don’t know about you, but to me that’s a little disturbing.

What are they doing with all that data?

That is the question. And Google are constantly bringing out new innovative tools. Their latest idea is creatingbehaviouralprofiles based on which sites you visit, which they plan to use to target you with more adverts. Great, just what we all wanted. Why are they doing this? Because they can - youwillingly gave them your data. Better-targeted adverts means more money for Google. Their income comes from people paying to advertise with them. They are the world’s largest online advertising broker, after all.

“But that all sounds kinda hard to believe…”

Not only is it true, but it’s designed like that. Google can track you because of the way the Internet’s internal plumbing works. You see your computer- or your browser to be more precise -automaticallysends certain information to a website whenever you click on a link or type in the address of a web page.

What kind of information does your browser send?

Firsly, your IP address - it’s like a computer telephone number - which the website needs to reply to you. If you buy a CD via mail order theyneed to know your postal address or they can’t send you what you ordered!

Also, there’s cookies. Cookies are bits of information from a website, which are stored on your computer, and sent back to the website every time your browser connects to that site again. For example cookies often contain your password for a website, or the last time you visited it. That way, the website can identify you as a previous visitor and maybe personalise the site layout for you.

Moreover, virtually all sites incorporate content not physically located on their own servers. This could be pictures, embedded scripts, adverts, music, videos, flash animations, and more. So your browser has to request stuff from several different places - each of which might have their own cookies - to build up one web page.

How can Google track thee? Let me count the ways!

So it should be obvious Google can identify you when you visit their website (which many people have as their default home page on their browser). But surely they can’t follow you while you’re not using their services, right?Wrong!

Remember what I said earlier - your browser identifies you via cookies whenever it requests external elements on a page. Do you know how many web pages incorporate elements from Google? Things like Google maps, Google site search boxes, Google video, or Adsense adverts. Millions of pages have those. Every time they load, Google get their cookie, so they can know what sites you’re reading.

Here’s a summary of the above, from a news story about a recent probe by the US Federal Trade Commission into Gmail/Google mail - emphasis mine:

Um, priorities?

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Posted Wednesday 18th March 2009 20:57 GMT

I would have thought that they would be more interested in (in order of importance):

* Google’s new behavioural advertising data mining of people’s browsing habits. AdBlock users, don’t be naive: Your web surfing habits still get collected even when you don’t see the ads. This one is way above the top of the list {…}

* Urchin.js, google-analytics and web beacons all over the web gives them an almost omniscient view of what people are browsing. {…}

* Excessive cookie validity at two years, renewing with every use; a moderate search user will never get rid of that cookie short of deleting it manually and thus her unique ID will be associated with every search and encounter with a Google script or web beacon. This seems to be the reason they prefer webmasters to let Google host urchin; if it’s not on a Google host, they can’t retrieve the Google cookie. It’s not quite as bad as cookies with an expiry date of 2038 but it has made very little difference to the end result;{…}

I suppose the bottom line to all of this is “What do Google get out of this?” If you think about that for long enough, the motivesbehind all of these “innovations” become clear.

Why should you care, and what to do about it

Maybe you don’t see the problem with all that. The old “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” platitude is not the right reaction here. I bet you wouldn’t publish your medical records freely on the Internet. (If you would, then Google already have that one covered: Here’s what one commentator said about this:

Chris C:I can’t believe some people are actually stupid enough to even consider placing important personal information in the hands of the largest advertising broker on the planet, especially when this broker is under no obligation to protect your information. They could get everyone to sign up for this and upload their medical records, then share those records with the world. What’s the worse that’ll happen? Since there’s no law against it, they may get a stern “please don’t do that again”.

Who knows what information Google will want to collect next, or what future use to which it will be put. We are talking about a private company who don’t care about your best interests, and who would control access to all knowledge on-line, if you’d only let them. So don’t let them.

Here’s what you can do:Don’t use Google, or any of their services. Block their adverts, for example with Adblock if you’re using Firefox. Now I know what you’re going to say…

But I like Google, they’re useful!”

Yes, I thought you’d say that. Here’s what to do if you still want to use Google - especially using Scroogle (point number 4):

  1. Delete your cookies from Google - that way you’ll make a break with your old profile. In most browsers, you can delete your cookies in the options/preferences/internet privacy settings, which is under the Edit or Tools menu (or the application’s name menu on a Mac).
  2. While you’re in that cookie/privacy settings screen of your browser; turn off third party cookies. This option may be called “only accept cookies from sites you navigate to, not all sites” - this will hinder Google’s ability to profile you.
  3. If you have an account with Google, don’t stay permanently logged in. Only log in when you need to.
  4. Search using Scroogle.Scroogleare a non-profit organisation who protect your privacy while you search Google. So you get the benefit of Google’s search results, only without their tracking cookies. They can even encrypt your connection, so your boss - or other people on the free Wifi network you may be using - can’tsnoop on what you’re searching for either.