I always knew that the big online companies were collecting data on all of us, but until I discovered I could request a copy of it and downloaded my data from Google, I had no idea how comprehensive it was. What an eye opener!

I got my first inkling when I got the email from Google saying my data was ready to download. As their notification says:

“It contains your Android Device Configuration Service, Blogger, Bookmarks, Calendar, Chrome, Classroom, Cloud Print, Contacts, Data Shared For Research, Drive, Fit, G Suite Marketplace, Google Help Communities, Google My Business, Google Pay, Google Photos, Google Play Books, Google Play Console, Google Play Games Services, Google Play Movies & TV, Google Play Music, Google Play Store, Google Shopping, Google+ +1s on websites, Google+ Circles, Google+ Communities, Google+ Stream, Groups, Handsfree, Hangouts, Hangouts on Air, Home App, Input Tools, Keep, Location History, Maps, Maps (your places), My Activity, My Maps, News, Posts on Google, Profile, Purchases & Reservations, Reminders, Saved, Search Contributions, Street View, Textcube, and YouTube data.”

That’s data from 49 sources. I’m not sure I’ve ever used some of them, and several I haven’t even heard of, but that’s a lot of places for data about me to be collected.

The next shock was when I went to download the prepared archive. Even zipped, it was a quarter of a gigabyte. That’s a lot of data. Even with a fast internet connection it took a long time to download.


And no surprise, Google has carefully collected every piece of information I’ve ever given it. For a start, it has my complete Google search history: what I searched on, dates and times. Everything, whether everyday stuff or the sort of search you’d be embarrassed to have revealed to anyone. And of course my browser history: every site I’ve visited with Google Chrome. It makes me glad I don’t use Chrome any more, though I bet most other browsers collect similar data.

Similarly with YouTube (which of course Google owns), it knows which clips I’ve watched, and what searches I’ve made. Some of those are embarrassing as well, if only for just how naff they were.

It’s got my auto-fill data – when Chrome helpfully puts your name and address into a form for you, that’s because Google has it all stashed away – full name, address, date of birth, email address, telephone number and so on.

It knows exactly the make, model and operating system version of my mobile phone and tablet, both of which run Google Android operating systems. Of course it has my contact list and calendar. If I used gmail, it would have data on how I use this. It knows which apps I’ve run and when. It also has a comprehensive location database for these devices – and when I say comprehensive, I mean a json file (json is a markup language, a bit like html or xml) running to nearly 12 million lines. There’s about 30 lines per entry, but even so that’s a lot of entries. A location stamp has date and time, satellite location and activity. The satellite location records latitude/longitude to seven decimal places of a degree – that’s around a centimetre, which is way beyond the accuracy of satnav, but it means Google knows as closely as it is possible to know where I am thanks to my mobile devices. The activity recorded is also interesting – it has various values, and a confidence factor for each, so it can guess not just where you are but what you are doing at the time. Here’s an example:

“activity” : [ {
“type” : “STILL”,
“confidence” : 63
}, {
“type” : “ON_FOOT”,
“confidence” : 20
}, {
“type” : “WALKING”,
“confidence” : 20
}, {
“type” : “IN_VEHICLE”,
“confidence” : 9
}, {
“type” : “IN_ROAD_VEHICLE”,
“confidence” : 9
}, {
“type” : “IN_RAIL_VEHICLE”,
“confidence” : 4
}, {
“type” : “IN_TWO_WHEELER_VEHICLE”,
“confidence” : 4
}, {
“type” : “IN_FOUR_WHEELER_VEHICLE”,
“confidence” : 4
}, {
“type” : “ON_BICYCLE”,
“confidence” : 2
}, {
“type” : “UNKNOWN”,
“confidence” : 1
} ]

So does Google really want to know if I’m on a bicycle or not? I suppose it gives them the chance to serve bicycle-related adverts to me. And serve adverts it does: it doesn’t show the individual ads served, but it records every single time and on which website or app I get an ad served ‘from Google Ads’. No doubt elsewhere in the Google Universe it could tie this to the individual advert if it needed to.

So, in conclusion, it makes me ever more wary of the power of these big organisations. I’m sure Facebook, Twitter and so on also collect lots of data, and in the case of the big social media companies, have a better shot that Google at tracing the links between people. Of course, Google has so much data that it can’t possibly do much at an individual level – but you worry about how rogue employees, or outside malicious agencies (eventually you think the professional cyber gangs or foreign governments will break Google’s security), could trace an individual’s lifestyle and build fake identities, issue blackmail threats, manipulate our view of news, or just plain corrupt our personal relationships. We are certainly getting closer to Big Brother…

If you want to look at your Google data archive, you can find out how to do that here: https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/3024190?hl=en

Big Brother is watching you…

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