Does Google Spy On Me? Here's How To Protect Yourself

How much information does Google have about me?

Magnifying glass held up to search box on website
Varijanta/iStock

Our lives have become more integrated online than in any other time in history. We interact with each other online via social media, email, and forums; we conduct business via complex, data-driven channels and innovations; and the culture we encounter online is fundamentally linked to that we come across in real life.

As the world’s most popular search engine, Google has created an enormously popular service – search -  with many peripheral platforms (YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps, etc.) used by hundreds of millions of people.

These services are easy to use, deliver fast and relevant results, and are the primary search destinations for many worldwide.

However, with this ease of use comes privacy concerns, especially in the realm of data storage, search tracking, and use of personal information. Vital concerns about the right to privacy, especially in regards to Google and the amount of information that they track, store, and ultimately use, are becoming increasingly important to many users.

In this article, we’ll go into detail on what kind of information Google tracks about you, how it uses this information, and what you can do to better protect and safeguard your Google searches.

Does Google Track What I Search For? 

Yes, Google definitely tracks all of your search history. If you want to use any of Google’s services, and utilize their personalization of the services that you receive, you must be signed in with a Google account in order for this to happen.

Once you are signed in, Google begins actively tracking

  • What you are searching for
  • How you are searching
  • Your search patterns
  • What ads you’re interested in
  • What you click on
  • What images you view
  • What videos you watch

This is all detailed out in Google’s terms of service, as well as the Google privacy policies.

While these are dense legal documents, it's wise to at least give them a quick look if you are at all concerned about how Google tracks and stores your information.

Does Google Track My Search History Even if I'm Not Signed In?

Every single time we log onto the Internet, we leave traces of our identity via IP addresses, MAC addresses, and other unique identifiers. In addition, most web browsers, sites, and applications require the user to opt in to the utilization of cookies – simple software that basically make our web browsing experience more enjoyable, personalized, and efficient.

If you’re not logged into Google, there is still a wide variety of information that you’re making available to Google simply by being online. That includes:

  • Where you are in the world geographically
  • Your IP address
  • Information about the Google services you use and how you might be using them based on your activity patterns
  • What ads you might click on
  • What device you are using
  • Server information
  • Identifying information gleaned from your use of partner services.

This information is used for targeted ad placement and search relevancy. It’s also made available to people who own sites that are tracking data via Google’s statistics tool, Google Analytics; they won’t necessarily be able to drill down and see from what neighborhood you’re accessing their site, but other identifying information (device, browser, time of day, approximate geo, time on site, what content is being accessed) will be available.

What are Examples of Information That Google Collects?

Here are a few examples of what Google collects from users:

  • Information that users give to Google, including personal information such as name, email address, phone number, credit card, and photo
  • Information gleaned from use of Google services, including usage data, personal preferences, emails, photos, videos, browsing history, map searches, spreadsheet and documents, etc.
  • Information from the device you are using to access Google  and Google services, including hardware model, mobile network information (yes, this includes your phone number), even what operating system you might be using
  • Server log information collated from when users are actively using Google services, including search queries, phone information (time and date of calls, types of calls, forwarding numbers, etc.), IP addresses, cookies that are uniquely linked to your web browser or Google account, and device activity information (crashes, what settings are on your hardware, language, etc.)
  • Location information about where you are in the world, including your city, state, neighborhood, and approximate address
  • Peripheral services and apps can also provide what is called a “unique application number” that provides more identifying information to Google when queried
  • Search history, including personal information found in Google services such as YouTube, Google Maps, and Google Images
  • User interactions with other sites and services are also tracked, especially when the user interacts with ads (read Why Are Ads Following Me Around Online? for more on how this works). 

Why Does Google Track So Much Information, and Why?

In order for Google to deliver the amazingly detailed and relevant results that many millions of people have come to rely on, they need a certain amount of data in order to deliver targeted results. For example, if you have a history of searching for videos about training a dog, and you’ve signed into Google (aka, opted in to sharing your data with Google), Google infers that you would like to see targeted results about dog training on all the Google services that you use: this could include Gmail, YouTube, web search, images, etc. Google’s primary purpose in tracking and storing so much information is to deliver more relevant results to its users, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, growing privacy concerns have motivated many people to carefully monitor their data, including data shared online. 

How to Keep Google From Tracking Your Data

There are three different approaches users can take if they are concerned about Google tracking, saving, and utilizing their data.

Cut everything off: By far the simplest way to disallow your data being tracked by Google is to simply not use any Google services – there are alternative search engines out there that do not track your search history, or collect any of your personal information.

Don’t sign in, but recognize that some relevancy will be lost: People who want to continue using Google without getting tracked can definitely do so, simply by not signing in to their Google accounts. This option is somewhat of a double-edged sword: your information will not be tracked, but your search relevancy could see a decline because of this.

Use Google with caution and common sense: For users who want to continue using Google, don’t want their information to be tracked, but want to take advantage of its competitive search results, there are ways to go about this.

  • Check your Google settings on a regular basis. You, as the user, have complete control over what data you choose to share (or not to share) with Google. You can do this for each service you use with Google, from Gmail to YouTube to general search settings. Click here to update your Google account activity settings.  
  • Check your Google dashboard. Everyone who has an account at Google has what is called a “dashboard”, which is simply a way to see all your Google activity, settings, and profile information in one convenient place. Here’s where you can see what email(s) Google might have, change passwords, see connected applications and sites, view all accounts, manage active devices, manage  your contacts, and much, much more. There’s even an option to have a reminder sent monthly to make sure all your settings are where you want them to be for each individual Google service. Click here to access your Google dashboard.
  • Take power over the ads that you are shown. Did you know that you can review and control the kinds of ads that Google shows you? Most users don’t take advantage of this amazing convenience, but it’s very easy to do. Click here to view, edit, and even opt out of the kinds of ads you see on Google.
  • Do periodic privacy checkups. Not sure which Google services are using what information, how much of your personal information is being shared, or what information Google already has gathered on your search habits? One way to tackle this somewhat overwhelming data is to use the Google Privacy Checker. This simple tool helps users to methodically check exactly what is being shared, and where. For example, you can choose  how much information is shared in your Google+ profile, both publicly and privately. You can edit how much information is available if someone clicks on your YouTube user profile. You can opt out of Google using any publicly shared photos in background images, edit any endorsements of products you might have given in the past, keep all your Google subscriptions (YouTube videos, for example) private, manage your Google Photos settings, and more. You can even personalize your Google experience here, from how you view directions to how your search results are displayed. The user is ultimately in charge of how they experience Google – all the tools are in your hands.  

Overwhelmed? Here’s Where to Start

If this is the first time that you’re learning about how much information Google is actually tracking, storing, and using, you might be a little overwhelmed as to what to do first.

Simply taking the time to educate yourself about what one of the most popular search engines in the world is doing with your online data is a valuable first step.

If you’re looking for a virtual “clean slate”, the best thing to do would simply be to clear your Google search history completely. You can find a detailed step by step on how to accomplish that here: How to Find, Manage, and Delete Your Search History.

Next, decide how much information you are comfortable with giving Google access to. Do you care if all your searches are tracked as long as you get relevant results? Are you okay with giving Google access to your personal information if you receive more targeted access to what you’re looking for? Decide what level of access you are comfortable with, and then use the suggestions in this article to update your Google settings accordingly.

How to Protect Your Privacy and Anonymity Online

For more on how to manage your privacy online, and stop your information from being potentially tracked, we invite you to read the following articles:

Privacy: It's Ultimately Up To You 

Whether or not you’re concerned about the information in your Google searches, profile, and personal dashboards being used to enhance the relevancy of your queries online, it’s always a good idea to make sure that all information shared on any service is within the bounds of personal privacy that you are most comfortable with. While we should certainly keep the platforms and services we use accountable to a common standard of user privacy, the safety and security of our information online is ultimately up to each one of us to determine.