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Data privacy at Google

Picture: Agnieszka Boeske


Companies like Google or Facebook are notorious for their aggressive data collection practices. Their business model is largely based on the creation of precise user profiles, in order to tailor specific offers to them or sell them on to third parties. As a user, however, you’re not entirely at their mercy: In the following we describe how you can better protect your privacy.

Privacy settings

After Google came under pressure for their data collection on several occasions, the search engine provider went on the offensive and since 2012 has allowed users to view and manage (part of) the collected data. Since then, the web page https://privacy.google.com/ has offered the option of customizing data protection settings for a number of Google Services in one place. (The modifications described here can only be made if you have a Google account.)

By way of introduction: The documentary by the German TV station ZDF makes it clear that Google already knows a great deal about us – and has long since ceased to be just a search engine.

The documentary made some extremely interesting points:

01:06 What our search queries reveal about us.

12:26 A Google insider speaks out

14:46 How Google makes billions

24:25 Why Google is much more than a mere search engine

Search history, public profile, activity

Since 2007 it has been possible to view a list of all your searches to date and delete them. A summary of these searches, including the videos watched on YouTube, is available here: https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity. This page lets you view your search history, delete past searches and download an archive of all searches.


The most important page is https://myaccount.google.com/activitycontrols. Here it is possible to specify which activities are saved. For example, you can deactivate the saving of your personal search history or the tracking of locations from which you have accessed Google services.

At https://aboutme.google.com/ you can see what information is shared about you publicly. Check your account security at https://myaccount.google.com/secureaccount. This page tells you, for instance, what devices are used to access a Google account, meaning you can take action if it lists an unfamiliar device.

Another very helpful option is also to view the locations of your own activities: At https://www.google.com/maps/timeline, a world map shows where activities on Google were tracked. Here you can see if someone has hacked your Google account and is using it in another country, for example.

Exporting and deleting data

The page https://takeout.google.com/settings/takeout lets you export all existing data. This includes your Google and YouTube search history, but also files on Google Drive, conversations in Gmail, the location history of Android phones and other data.

If you want to completely delete all your data, go to https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity and click on “Delete activity by”. On the next page you can select the desired time period where your data is to be deleted. Once you have confirmed your selection, all activities from the chosen period are deleted.

Is my data really permanently deleted?



This completely deletes all activities from your profile. Just how far the deletion of personal data extends within the company itself, is hard to say. Google doesn’t go into any more detail about this. It cannot be assumed that this data disappears completely from the company’s servers.

Legally speaking, Google is not allowed to store data about a person that enables them to be (directly) personally identified. Indirectly, however, this can still be possible on the basis of your online behavior: Through your searches and the locations where you are active, it would theoretically be possible to identify you clearly.

So it is virtually impossible to completely delete all your Google activities. But by preventing your activities from being saved in the first place, it will be harder for third parties to create a simple behavior profile and link this with your Google account.

Saving your search history in Google vs. your browser

Please also note that deleting your data from Google is not the same as deleting your browser’s search history. The latter only affects searches that are saved locally on your computer.

If you don’t want certain searches to be saved, we recommend carrying out the searches using “private browsing” in Firefox. Searches performed using the private browsing mode are not logged in Google’s search history.

Data collection on Android operating systems

Google may be best-known as a search engine, but you shouldn’t forget that the most sensitive data that Google harvests comes from their Android mobile operating system. If you have an Android smartphone, Google is able to create movement and usage profiles for you.

There is no way of preventing this data collection – especially because it often takes place secretly. However a large part of the data collection can be prevented by setting Location Reporting to Off. But here too it cannot be assumed that Google hasn’t nonetheless saved it somewhere via some kind of ‘back door’.

What does Google do with my data?

Primarily, this data is simply retained. Currently Google is known above all to use this data to personalize search results. In addition, demographic and geographic data is used to personalize the advertising you see on your devices.

In 2012 Google amended its privacy policy to permit personal information to be used (internally) for other purposes. This applies mainly to the DoubleClick service. You can deactivate the personalization of Google Ads here: https://www.google.com/settings/u/0/ads

Summary

Thus we see that there are ways of improving data privacy, but it has to be done in several different places and the process is not especially clear.
Just because Google removes this data from an account does not necessarily mean that the data is not being collected or that it is actually deleted.

If you perform sensitive searches that you don’t want to share with Google, we recommend using the search engine DuckDuckGo that doesn’t save any user data.

Four steps to greater privacy in the Google universe

1. Visit Google Privacy to modify the privacy settings for various services in one place.

2. At Activity Controls, control which personal activities are saved by Google.

3. At Delete Activity, delete specific activities from your own history.

4. At Ads Settings, deactivate personalized Google Ads.