Forgot where you ate lunch last Friday? Just ask Google!

Have you ever stopped to think about how many ways you’re being tracked as you go about your daily routine? Your credit card tracks purchases. Websites keep tabs on how you use them. Your phone calls can be traced. And that little trip to Hawaii was monitored by your government through your passport. Aside from logging out of society by moving to a rustic cabin in the woods, you can’t really avoid it.

Examples of how privacy can be compromised

  • Imagine if you left your computer on, and someone checked out your browser history. What would they find?
  • The Canadian government wants to move to chipped passports that contain personal information. Technology that can’t be updated can quite easily be hacked or exposed in very short order.
  • Blu Ray discs had barely graced store shelves before their copy protections were critically compromised.

What does this illustrate? That information is being tracked and pretty much anything is hackable. Discouraged? Actually, most companies do a decent job with security. If you think of how many different places your personal information is stored, it’s amazing how few compromises there are.

The evil you know?

Most companies don’t let you know what they know about you. Your personal data tidbits quietly accumulate in databases thousands of kilometers away. But some companies are trying to be more open and transparent. One of those is the “Do no evil” Google. They’re kind enough to provide a dashboard showing what they know about you. In the name of transparency, here’s mine!

When you first log in, there may be a few things that throw you off. Although, from a security perspective, it’s interesting to know if any alternate email addresses, connected services, or new locations are logging into your account. That could help you understand if your account has been compromised.

From there, you get to see trends in email usage, most contacted emails, and some really nicely summarized location information. In my case, Google knows I went to my brother’s place in Calgary over the weekend and that I stopped at a Booster Juice on the outskirts of Red Deer on the way in. I can see how many hours a week I work, how much time I spend at home, and how much time I spend elsewhere. Google knows this information mostly because I have an Android phone. But my phone tracks a lot more than just that.  **Update**: Don’t think you’re safer just because you have an iPhone; Apple’s tracking you as well.

A month’s worth of data from my phone

The image above shows that, in the past month, I’ve been to Seattle, Edmonton, and to a few towns east of Edmonton. Interesting, but not critical, right?

Well, it might make it easier for people to find cheating spouses, or for my wife to find out that I went golfing instead of to a seminar. I’m still not seeing anything that I’m too concerned about.

In fact, I see real opportunity here for improving my life. Last year, I ran 3rd party software that tracked this same data so that I could optimize my commute to work. I ended up shaving off 6 minutes from my commute. That 6 minutes should save me about 50 hours of commuting per year.

Now with Google, I’ve got an even better set of data. By default, Google is logging my location every 3 minutes. Since they’re sharing that data, I can use it to further optimize my commute. Investigating a little deeper, I can see that my average 12 minute commute to work increased to around 17 minutes once school started again. Guess I’m lucky. Edmonton’s traffic is pretty tame.

Does it matter?

OK, so Google knows where I was last Tuesday, and could probably quickly figure out what my favorite lunchtime restaurants are. It knows how often I shop at Superstore, how many hours I spend at work, what websites I browse, and a whole heck of a lot more.

That all sounds really scary, until you think about what Google would likely do with that information…namely, show you relevant advertising. Is that really so bad? It’s not like any real people are looking at my data and scrutinizing the 45 minutes I spend browsing Home Depot. It’s all just algorithms trying to figure out what relevant products to show me. Should I be upset that they want to show me ads for products and services that I might actually buy? I can’t say that it bothers me.

What can I do about it?

Oh, it does bother you? Well, you’re in luck because Google gives you easy control over EVERYTHING. While other companies hide what they know and don’t give you control, Google shows you exactly what it knows and let’s you do what you want with the data.

That means you can delete that day you went to the movies instead of the gym, delete all your location history, turn it off, or just delete everything and go live in that cabin in the woods.

Don’t feel safe yet, though. Google is just one of hundreds of companies that have you in some sort of database. If you want out, you’ll really have to look at that fixer upper in the bush in Northern BC.

Until then, don’t worry that Google knows you had lunch at the Mercer Tavern on September 7th, at 12:14pm. What are they going to do, show you more ads for local restaurants?

  • I, for one, welcome our new search engine overlord.

  • I’m not as worried about what Google will do with it as about government intervention (in some countries) demanding to see the records of political threats.