Google and Privacy

Will Rantis

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In the last 15 years, the importance of Google as a company has increased dramatically. For most people, Google is the primary search engine that they use, and Google Chrome is their primary web browser. It also offers a host of other services, such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Drive (to name a few). Such free software has been readily adopted by schools, such as our own Fairfax County. But how does it advantage Google to offer free services?

Google’s main business is advertising, which it does on various sites across the internet. According to Eric Rosenburg, “advertising from Google websites has comprised a relatively consistent 86.78% of total company revenue.” In order to improve its ability to advertise, Google engages in the practice of targeted advertising, a process by which your actions and demographics are collected and used to show ads that you are more likely to click on. In order to do this more effectively, Google creates profiles of people based on their information.

Before I continue, I think it is important to address a common misconception about what Google does with your data. Google does not sell the data it collects about you. This is well defined in their privacy policy and makes sense. Google wants to serve ads more effectively than any other company, so giving their competitive advantage away would only serve to damage their business. There are other reasons to be concerned about this collection, however.

The information Google collects about you includes your browsing history, purchasing history, location, the people you communicate online with, and audio with audio related products. The magnitude of this collection is obviously quite large, especially when you consider that some of this data is collected while you aren’t actively using a product. Android phones have the capability to track your location regardless of whether or not you are using or have any Google apps installed. This has raised concerns among some that this location data could be used to link online data profiles to themselves. There is also the problem of data leaks, one of which occurred recently in which over 1,000 audio recordings from Google Assistant were leaked.

Google has entered the education much more prominently within the last ten years. The release of Chromebooks, relatively cheap laptops that many schools have bought, combined with the release of free services such as Google Docs has established Google as a presence in many schools. Google also has a checkered past when it comes to collecting student data, having an FTC (Free Trade Commission) complaint lodged against it for appearing to target ads to students based on their use of non-Google Apps For Education services. Whether on not it has, it still does collect your information, leading some to ask why the data is being collected, especially as school accounts are tied to actual students.

Browsing data is collected through information that is passed to the search engine. Some information you can avoid sending, such as the information related to your Google account, by not logging in. Other information, such as your MAC address, uniquely identifies the computer and must be sent, which can be traced less accurately to you. Websites on the internet place information, called cookies, into your computer, some of which can be used to track you. These cookies can also be installed from other websites, provided the site owners allow them to be placed on them. The tracking cookies you’ll see most often are Google and Facebook.

There are some things a chrome user can do to protect yourself against these practices. Chrome as well as other browsers can send a “Do Not Track” request to websites you visit, which can be enabled in Chrome settings under advanced settings, but websites are under no obligation to obey it. You can also edit cookie settings in the advanced settings, allowing you to change the cookies that can be stored. As this is Google’s search engine, finding the options to completely block tracking is difficult, but some measure of protection is possible. To disable targeted ads on your Google account, go to Account and under the tab “Data & Personalization” find “Ad-Personalization,” where you can toggle targeted advertising and request your data. This won’t stop Google from collecting it, but will stop you from seeing tailored adverts. If you want more privacy, consider using alternate search engines or alternate browsers. Privacy is an important matter. Don’t forfeit your data unknowingly.