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Does Google know too much about you?

Let's own ALL the things.

If you do a Google search about how much information Google really controls, there’s a little bit of hyperbole (from users) out there. There’s a litany of searches like ‘Google wants to own your mind‘, ‘Google wants to control you’. There’s also a ‘Google wants to teach computers regret’ which is just creepy, really.

Those living in fear of a barcode on their psyche have been prolific with their concerns, no doubt about it. But they’re not totally barking up the wrong tree. Just ask Google. Its own mission statement says this: “Google’s mission is to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Luckily, its motto is ‘don’t be evil’. Right guys?

What does Google know?

That ‘information’ isn’t just in all the books ever written (one Google project is to digitise most of the books in the world – eventually – and place them online, making them searchable for everyone). And it isn’t just the information from businesses like where they’re located or what their number is. It’s also your information. Your name, where you like to shop, what you like to buy, who you talk to, what you talk about, what your favourite colour is, what foods you like. Why you think dogs are better than cats. The fact that one word you keep spelling wrong is ‘rhythm’.

It started with Google search itself. Think about it. I’ve Googled things I would never tell anyone in my life. Private things, in the hope that there were answers out there in the wide, blue, binary yonder. But I did tell someone. I told Google. And now they know that I didn’t know what a mucus plug was.

True story.

It knows more about me than my own family does.

Information is the new gold

No seriously, they probably know the answer before you knew you what the question was.

And you just know that information is valuable. More valuable than some natural resources. Google is worth about $111 billion and most of their users across their various programs have never paid them a cent. My Google searches are free, my Google mail is free, the Android operating system on 100 million phones is free. Google Chrome the web browser is free. Free, free, free.

The only company in the world worth more is Apple ($153 billion), which sells hardware for the most part. Google sells you.

Oh, and now there’s Google+. What, you thought they wanted to give you a place to hang out, out of the kindness of their multi-coloured hearts?

Google needs to know more about you

Not quite. As debate raged about the need for people like you and me to use their real names online, Google admitted in an interview that Google+ was primarily an ‘identity service’ that required real people. Vice President Eric Schmidt said:

“If you think about it, the Internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer or what have you… So if we knew that it was a real person, then we could sort of hold them accountable, we could check them, we could give them things, we could you know bill them, you know we could have credit cards and so forth.”

Google+ has a ‘real name only’ policy because it needs to know who you are, as a spoke in its other operations. Why? Because Facebook does. Right now, Facebook has some 750 million users worldwide who use their accounts to log-in to websites across the full gamut of what the Internet offers. And every time a user ‘likes’ something … well, they know what you like. Ka-ching.

They’re building digital portraits of hundreds of millions of people and the minutiae of your daily interactions is the icing on the cake. Admit it: you’ve been served ads in the past and been floored by how much information they have. So much so that it almost seems like magic. But it’s just a very clever algorithm which, like a snowball, grows more powerful and precise as information is added.

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Already Google’s storage capacity is about 1 exabyte, which is roughly equivalent to 50,000 years of DVD quality video. That explains the kind-of-creepy omniscience, like so:

Seriously though, how bad could it be?

It’s all peachy, really. That’s assuming you don’t mind being a product. And truth be told, Google services are pretty amazing. There’s a logical trade-off involved when you get stunningly accurate searches, email, searchable online videos (Google owns YouTube) and myriad other benefits from a company that doesn’t charge. All you have to do is let them absorb every ounce of information about you and then sell ads based on your penchant for collecting ornamental thimbles.

If you’re not embarrassed by that, what could possibly go wrong?

So breathe easy. It’s not like Google has a full Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in its Mountain View gardens like a James Bond super villain right?

Oh wait.

Do you care how much Google (or Facebook) knows about you?

Update: After writing this piece I was contacted by Google who wanted to pass on some of their own tools they created that help users manage their personal information. In the fairness of publishing, I thought I’d share them with you here, in their words:

Privacy Centre — Google’s Privacy Centre sets out, in plain English (no law degree required!), the information people need to control their privacy online and directs you to important privacy tools. You can access the Privacy Centre from the front page of google.com.au.

Google Dashboard — A lot of people use multiple Google services, so we’ve established one easy place to go to review and control all of your data and settings for every service you use. It also provides quick links to the privacy policies and relevant help centre resources for each product.  For example, under Gmail you can find a quick link to manage your chat history (e.g. to save chats or keep them “off the record”).

Ads Preferences Manager — Google is the only online ad company to offer a tool of this kind.  It gives you control over the types of ads you see.  You can view, add, and remove the categories that are used to show you interest-based ads (sports, travel, cooking, etc) on websites in Google’s ad network.  You can also use this tool to opt out completely.

Data Liberation Front We believe that we should make it very easy for users to move their personal data in and out of Google products, which is why we launched this initiative – a service which lets you take all of your information back, whenever you want to.

They also confirmed, sadly, that Google HQ Australia does not have a T-Rex skeleton.