Conceptually, we all know that Google, Facebook, and a myriad of other online companies track us, profile us, and collect as much information as they can about our online actions. This information is valuable both for the company personally so it can better target its marketing & sales efforts to you directly. It also benefits the company because they can then show their advertising clients how much data they’ve got on users so the ad clients are willing to pay more to better target and post their ads. There are probably other reasons as well–both benign and nefarious. [Insert something about NSA surveillance here.] Suffice to say you can’t even so much as glance at a computer these days without leaving some sort of digital trail.
So, I decided to try and find out exactly what these companies know about me. I focused on Google and Facebook because A) they’re the giants and B) they’re the services I use most often. In no special order, here is what I found.
Google Activity and History
- Control Your Google Ads: “Pick your own profile” and give Google accurate information about your interests as opposed to making them guess.
- Opt-Out of Analytics Browser Extension: If you don’t want to be tracked by Google Analytics you can opt out with this browser plugin.
- Location History: This one I think only works for Android users. Still, Google will tell you where you’ve been…which I found hyper-creepy.
- Web & App Activity: …or you could call this “real-time search tracking.” You can find just about everything you’ve searched for and luckily get rid of a lot of it.
- Dashboard: This gives you a one-stop-shop to manage you preferences and alerts for Google products. Conveniently, there’s also a “remind me to check these settings monthly” option.
- Connected Apps: Manage and delete the apps / devices that have access to your Google account.
- Download Your Data: Get a copy of the data you have provided to various Google products.
Google Privacy Settings
- Personal Info and Privacy Checkup: This is a dashboard of sorts that focuses on your personal information (email, phone, profile(s), etc.). You can also launch a Privacy Checkup from here…which is certainly recommended.
- Security & Privacy Tools: A list of helpful tools and links to educate you about privacy practices and allow you to manage privacy settings within the Google ecosystem.
- Watch History: Shows you the videos you’ve watched in the past.
- Search History: Shows you the search terms you’ve plugged into YouTube in the past.
Luckily, at least with Google services, many of these pages allow you to delete the information they have about you. Is it really deleted? Well…they say it is, so…yeah…there’s that…
Facebook makes it a little more difficult to get at the data they have about you. You can find out why they serve you specific ads by following these steps.
- Log into your Facebook account and look for an ad in the right side-bar. If it’s actually interesting to you so much the better.
- Click on the “x” in the upper right hand corner of the ad. (For ads in your newsfeed you’ll need to click the “v” button in the upper-right.
- Click “Why am I seeing this?” in the dropdown menu that appears. This will provide specific information about that advertisement and why it showed up.
- Click the “Manage your ad preferences” link so see what Facebook says are your interests–business, family, hobbies, lifestyle, technology, etc. From here you can add and remove preferences but you cannot opt out of advertising altogether.
…and you can (kind of, hopefully) opt-out of advertising and tracking by following the instructions on this Facebook Help Center page. Let me know how that works out for you…
In the End,
What I’ve learned from this exercise is that there is probably no way I can keep up with all the digital information I’m sharing and very little chance that I can keep my life and personal information private online. This might sound like a defeatist attitude but it comes down to this…
I search for the things that interest me and Google records that. I visit pages discussing subjects about which I want to know more and Google knows when I do that. I take actions online that are commensurate with my age, gender, interests, location, and other personally identifying factors and The Goog definitely pays attention when I do.
So, unless I want to delete my Google account(s), use Tor for everything, and switch my searches over to DuckDuckGo*, I’m pretty much assured of being profiled and tracked by our Digital Overlords in Mountainview. …and you are too.
I’d love to know what sorts of efforts any of you are taking to protect your privacy and identity online. Hit me up in the comments and let me know your success (or failure) stories!