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New study shines more light on what Google collects and knows about its users

The tech giant says users are still in control and have the power to prevent data tracking

Photo (c) TARIK KIZILKAYA - Getty Images
Having written numerous articles about privacy issues with Facebook, Google, phone apps, and the like, nothing should surprise me anymore. However, when you find that more than five years of almost every move you’ve made has been archived, a few hairs are likely to stand up on your neck.

Let me explain.

Monday morning, an email landed in my in-box with the subject line “Your August in review.” It was from Google, saying “Your timeline in Google Maps helps you curate the places you've been. Look back on the past month and reminisce about recent trips and past places.”

Typically, emails from Google don’t get much of my time, but this one brought on a mixed rush of curiosity and concern.

When I clicked on the link, I was taken to Google Map’s timeline site where I was told that I had visited 397 places since 2013. Taking a deeper dive, I was able to find out the routes I had taken -- both driving and walking -- to get to all of those places, not to mention the time it took to get there, how long I was at each stop, and any photos I had snapped with my phone’s camera while I was there.

It didn’t stop there, either.

Google had also recorded and archived my “Ok, Google” voice requests (“Ok, Google, where’s the nearest Walgreen’s?”), and it wasn’t shy about following me out of the country. In all my travelogue glory, the timeline listed all the places I’d visited from Budapest to Britain when I toured Europe a few years ago.

No matter where I went or what I did, Google Maps seemed to have nearly all the W’s -- who, what, when, where -- covered. A new study by Douglas C. Schmidt, a computer science professor at Vanderbilt University, confirms my gut instinct.

“Google learns a great deal about a user’s personal interests during even a single day of typical internet usage,” wrote Schmidt, who found that a stationary Android phone -- one with Google’s Chrome browser active in the background -- communicated location information to Google 340 times during a 24-hour period.

“In an example ‘day in the life’ scenario, where a real user with a new Google account and an Android phone (with new SIM card) goes through her daily routine, Google collected data at numerous activity touchpoints, such as user location, routes taken, items purchased, and music listened to. Surprisingly, Google collected or inferred over two-thirds of the information through passive means. At the end of the day, Google identified user interests with remarkable accuracy.”

An example of how Schmidt defines “passive means” might be someone who bought coffee from Starbucks using their Starbucks app; there would be two points of “passive” collection: walking to a Starbucks and opening up the Starbucks app.

Like shooting fish in a barrel

With an estimated 2 billion monthly active users of its related Android operating system, there’s a lot of data Google can access. Schmidt goes on to point to Google Play’s place in the Google ecosystem, enabling the company to gain even more user information from names and birthdays to credit card numbers.

Despite any potential “big brother” taint Google takes on with its data collection, the company wants the world to know that the user is still in control and can flip these data collection switches off anytime they want.

“Location History helps you get better results and recommendations on Google products. For example, you can see recommendations based on places you've visited with signed-in devices, or traffic predictions for your daily commute.” But, at the end of the day, the company gives all the power to the user: “You control what’s saved in your Location History, and you can delete your history at any time,” the company claims.

There’s some debate on that point, however. A new investigation from the Associated Press (AP) revealed that many Google services on both iPhones and Androids store users’ location data even if the privacy settings are set to prevent it from doing so. Just to be sure it had its facts straight, the AP requested a confirmation of these findings from computer-science researchers at Princeton who found them to be accurate.

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