How Much Privacy Do You Really Have with Google?

Google and Tracking Cookies

Have you ever wondered how your computer knows so much about you? Maybe you’ve visited a site reviewing the best juice machines, and then later visited a site about Ping fairway woods only to find Google AdWord ads for culinary schools and new recipe books.

Is it a coincidence that you were just browsing cooking sites the day before?

Privacy advocates would say, “No!” In fact, many are “up in arms” about Google’s methods of k/eeping track of its users. And this isn’t the first time Google has angered people.

But you might be surprised by how far they’ve gone and by how little privacy you really have online.

Not That Kind of Cookie

You’re probably wondering how Google knows so much about what you do when you’re online. The answer is simple and might be shocking—your computer is telling them your preferences, especially which sites you visit.

Your computer uses something called ‘cookies’—no, not the ones you eat—to store information about your browsing habits. Most of them are harmless, actually. Their main purpose is to make the Internet easier for you to browse and make it more interactive.

Computers use cookies to send information from your computer’s browser to websites. When you visit a site, a cookie is saved on your computer. They also get installed automatically when you fill out and submit information through an online form.

The information stored in that cookie helps to identify you. When you go to a site, you get a customized version. This sounds convenient, right? Well, actually it is. Cookies make it possible for you to visit sites Ebay, Facebook and YouTube without having to log in every time.

Most cookies are harmless and expire very quickly from your system. Sometimes this happens as soon as you leave the site, and sometimes cookies expire when you shut down your computer. Some, however, can hang around for years.

Although most cookies don’t mean any harm, some, on the other hand, are used to track your browsing habits. These bad cookies are called “tracking cookies,” and they can be harmful if they are used by a third party to looking to sell products to you. Tracking cookies can stay on your computer for months, even years, monitoring your browsing activity for advertisers.

The Truth About Email and Privacy

Cookies may cause you some concern. But Gmail users should have even more concern about how much Google really considers their privacy. You might be shocked to learn that Google scans all of your emails for keywords that will help them place relevant ads.

You may have just sent an email to your friend mentioning your recent purchase of a juice extractor, and then you log back in to find tons of ads for kitchen appliances. If their reading your messages weren’t bad enough, did you know they also read the emails you receive from your friends—even if they’re not actually subscribed to Google services? Yikes!

Google not only scans emails, the data is stored. What happens to this stored data?

Well, Google claims to keep stored emails for up to 60 days, then deletes them. When it comes to email scanning, Google explains that this is done in order to integrate with its product lines. However, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic.org) points out, Google can hang on to your emails indefinitely.

Google also says it doesn’t cross-reference cookies, but the Electronic Privacy Information Center states that it actually can cross-reference cookies, which gives it the potential to create detailed profiles of its users when information is combined from various services.

Social Networking vs. Email

In 2001, Google Plus and Gmail integrated. What does this mean for your privacy? It means that when you create a Google Plus account and log in for the first time, you’d find all of your email contacts already there!

Actually, Google suggests them to you by finding the people you email and chat with the most often. But this feature is already raising questions about what this means for the privacy expectations of email.

Just a few years ago, Google committed another violation of privacy with its ‘Google Buzz,’ a social networking service that automatically added email contacts into its users account. Since the contacts were visible to friends using the service, it meant that anybody could see them.

Angry protests immediately erupted. Google tried to smooth things over by saying that users could easily adjust privacy settings. The problem with that option is that many users did not know about it until it was too late. As a result of the protests, Google removed the feature.

The newer social networking service, Google Plus, has already removed its “resharing” feature due to issues over privacy violations. The feature let users share something with those in their circle that was first shared by someone else. This can be done with a simple click and without the approval of the original sharer.

Although the “resharing” violation maybe wasn’t as serious as the fiasco with Google Buzz, it does show that Google doesn’t seem concerned with protecting its users’ privacy.

The disclosure policy for Google Plus states that they “will record information about your activity – such as posts you comment on and the other users with whom you interact – in order to provide you and other users with a better experience on Google services.”

Does this mean that everything we do using Google services gets recorded? Should you be worried about what data is being stored and who sees it?

Could You Be on Google Maps?

At the height of Google’s privacy offenses is Google Street View, a service that sent unmarked vans to drive around and take pictures of people and publish them for everyone on the Internet to see.

In 2007, the uproar over Google Street View culminated with lawsuits and anger targeted at Google. The legal result was that the pictures were an invasion of privacy, although not illegal.

Google handled the hubbub over the incident by issuing a statement that if you find anything objectionable, you are free to report it.

Ways to Protect Your Privacy

Unfortunately, the only way to protect your Internet privacy 100% is to avoid the Internet. It might be scary to know that everything you do online leaves a data trail that could be accessed by someone else.

Of course, avoiding the Internet altogether may seem a little extreme. The good news is that there are things you can do to protect your privacy without going offline permanently.

The first way to protect yourself is to set your browser’s “Privacy Settings” to block cookies automatically or to let you know when one is being installed.

The second option is to delete current cookies being stored on your hard drive. Under “Settings,” select “View Files.” There you’ll find all your computer’s temporary files, including cookies. Remove anything you don’t recognize; the cookie names will be the URLs. Doing this also has the added bonus of freeing up more disk space.

A third option is to avoid Google if you are concerned about their regard for your privacy. You can avoid Gmail, Google Plus or other Google services and replace them with others.

Do you have other helpful suggestions for online privacy protection to share? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

Author: Pat Tate

As a senior Pat Tate started to explore Internet Marketing. She found a fascinating world with a rather steep learning curve. To help her keep a record of some of this learning, she uses her blog as a journal to keep track of the people and programs that she has met along the way. Grandma’s Internet Marketing/blog

She is an avid golfer and invites women to join her to talk golf at Women’s Golf Center

She has always loved toys and as the proud Grandmother of five beautiful Grandchildren she gets to play with new ones. Grandma’s Toy Review