Improve Your Google Account Privacy

This blog was written by Bruce Snell.

I’ve had a number of questions come in lately via email, social media and even in the waiting room at my doctor’s office about the notifications people have been getting from Google about some “new features for your Google Account.”

google topA lot of people will most likely default to the “click ok” response.  You know the response I’m talking about.  It’s that one you get anytime you see an “Are you sure?” pop-up when installing software or applying an update.    Don’t worry, we’ve all been guilty of blindly clicking “ok,” but in this situation, it is worth taking the time to look a little bit further into what clicking “ok” means.

What information does Google collect?

You probably use Google more than you think.  When I lived in Japan, the routing information provided by Google Maps helped me get wherever I needed when navigating the complex Tokyo metro system.   I switched over to Gmail back when you needed an invite and haven’t looked back.  YouTube videos of Aikido demonstrations, cute animals and dancing Storm Troopers regularly play in my house.  All of these things we regularly enjoy, without paying a cent.  Have you ever stopped to wonder how Google can afford to provide so many services for free?  Ads.  At a basic level, Google is able to provide these services due to revenue they generate by selling ad space.  So how does this relate to you?  What makes Google so successful is that they can offer very targeted groups for advertisers.  Let’s say you’re a company that makes left handed wall stretchers in Hoboken.  With the information that Google collects, they can make sure that your wall-stretcher is seen by every left-handed person in the tristate area when they surf the web.  Google does this by collecting personal data about you when you use one of their services.  They do provide a much more in-depth data on their privacy page, but I’ll hit the highlights for you here.

Google breaks down their collection methods in the following manner:

Information you give. This is information you provide Google directly by typing it in yourself.  This can be very sensitive information like:

  • Name
  • Email address
  • Telephone number
  • Credit card information

Information Google gets from your use of their services. This information is collected as you use services provided by Google, such as using their search engine or watching a video on YouTube.  This does also include visiting a page that uses Google’s advertising services.  The type of information collected in this manner includes:

  • Device information – details about the device used to access Google services. This could be mobile device, the type of computer you are using, etc
  • Log information – details of how you use their services, such as what you searched for or videos you watched
  • Telephony information – if you’re using Google Voice or Google Fi, they will collect log information like your phone number, calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls, duration of calls, SMS routing information and types of calls.

So What Should I Do?2016-07-22_10-41-29
There is a lot of information that is being collected, some of which may be information you don’t want shared.  Instead of clicking the “I Agree” button at the bottom, click on “More options.”
Now you could easily say “Yes, I’m in,” but I recommend you take a moment to look through the privacy settings to make sure you are aware of what you are sharing.  Click on the 2nd option down, “No changes – review key privacy settings more fully.”    Once you click “Continue” at the bottom, you’ll be taken to the “Privacy Checkup.”  Click “Start now” to get going.2016-07-22_10-53-28

When you start the checkup, you’ll be presented with 6 different areas that you can look through and modify to your specific tastes.  There are a number of options to look through and I highly encourage you to spend the time to carefully consider each one of the available options.  How much information you share with Google is completely up to your personal taste and comfort level.  That being said, one feature I highly recommend enabling is the “Remove geo location in items shared by link.”  This will strip the location information in any pictures you send in links to other people. 2016-07-21_10-38-09

Geo location is typically embedded in any picture you take with a smartphone.  This info isn’t always readily apparent, but could be used by cybercriminals to build a profile of you by figuring out where you regularly go.  It can also be used by online predators to find out where your children play or where you live.  I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but there have been many cases of cyber-stalking in which the predators used geo-location information to track their victims.

After you’ve reviewed all the changes you want to make, you can click “Continue” to complete the process, or you can click “View my account” to see all your security and privacy settings in once place.  You can come back to this page at any time to review and modify your settings.

If you’re curious about what sort of information about you is tracked in a typical day, click on “Go to my activity” at the bottom.  This will give you a great bit of insight into what your digital data trail looks like.  You can use this information to go back and modify your security settings if you feel too much of your information is being tracked.

2016-07-21_10-47-24Keeping on top of your data

I have to give Google credit for making an effort to be transparent with how they handle personal data.  They have created a single location that does a good job of spelling out the privacy settings in terms that everyone can understand.  Now it’s up to you to determine how much data you want to allow Google to collect and use.

  1. Visit “My Account” – This is your one stop shop for all the information related to your Google usage. With Google being so deeply connected into websites we use on a regular basis, it’s important to keep a handle on the data you are sharing.
  2. Do a regular checkup – It’s important that you check in on your security and privacy settings on a regular basis. Checking in once a month will allow you to quickly spot any changes or suspicious behaviors without taking too much time.  It’s a lot quicker to look over one month’s activity than it is to look through 3 months.
  3. Carefully think over your settings – With Google, you are trading your information for access to services like Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, etc. It is up to you to determine how much information you feel comfortable sharing.

Personally, I find value in seeing more targeted advertising that is created using my search history.  However, I am very strict when it comes to any information involving my children.  Ultimately it is up to you to decide how much you share.  Keeping your personal information protected can be tricky, but thankfully there are tools that can help.

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