The Cambridge Analytica scandal will be seen as a watershed moment – the point at which we all woke up and screamed, like Howard Beale in Network, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Yet, as incredibly entertaining as the sight of Mark Zuckerberg squirming in Congress was, Facebook’s data collection is just an amuse bouche.
Imagine a nightmarish scenario in which Google keeps track of everything you’ve ever searched, the places you’ve been and the videos you’ve watched, as well as creating a profile to better customise the adverts you see. I think you can see where this is going: here’s how to view the swathes of data Google holds on you.
To begin, sign into your Google account and head to history.google.com/history. This will bring you to the My Activity homepage, where you can see some of the data that Google has collected. Scroll down to see a full list of your YouTube searches – complete with progress bars showing how far you got through each video.
If that wasn’t enough, your Google searches will also be mixed into the feed (although this can be “paused”), which can make for some embarrassing reading…
But what does Google actually do with this information? It boils down to one word: adverts. The tech giant extracts keywords from your search history to build a profile of your interests and customise the ads you see. Click on this link to view yours.
Once you’re on the Ads Settings page, scroll down to see a grid of categories that Google thinks you’re interested in. While my profile, pictured below, gets a few right, it’s actually pretty inaccurate: yes, I listen to a lot classical music, often search for recipes and read articles about politics… but where did they get parenting and *shudder* cricket from?
So far, so straightforward. After all, most of us already knew that Google collects information to lob adverts at us, right? However, far more disturbing – in an Orwellian sort of way – is the firm’s location tracking. In essence, if you’ve used one of Google’s services in a certain place, it will be saved here.
It’s quite sobering to see your movements reduced to a series of blood-red blobs on a world map: the trip to the blustery west coast of Ireland, the weekend in Berlin, the wedding in India. Zoom in and things become more troubling: a click, or tap, on one of the spots will bring up the names of the restaurants, art galleries, airports and so on that you’ve visited. Google even knows the name of a tiny French supermarket I stopped at for five minutes last year (to pick up a baguette and cheese, naturally).
Brace yourself for another shock and click on one of these names. A pop-up will appear on the left-hand side of the screen that describes, almost exactly, your movements that day – from the amount of time you spent driving (the route will be outlined on the map in dark blue) to the two-hour dinner you had that evening.
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