From search engines and social networking through to shopping and media, the Internet has become our biggest window into the modern world. While the spirit of democracy, freedom, and neutrality run deep, online space has long been dominated by a few giant technology companies. Google are the biggest online name, offering a huge and comprehensive range of services, many of which are free. How much does Google really know about you, and should you be concerned?
The Internet continues to challenge traditional notions of privacy and personal security, as the online world envelopes our lives tighter every day. People use the Internet to order pizzas, buy music, navigate around the city, and meet new people, leaving a trail of data wherever they go. While it is possible to manipulate privacy settings and keep most of your personal information to yourself, the default settings in most platforms are very deliberately set up to track your every move.
For example, Google use tracking cookies together with AdSense and Analytics data to learn what sites you frequent and how much time you spend on each web page. A profile is then built from this data, with information then linked to things like your I.P address, browser plugins, and monitor resolution. Because profiles are built from abstract user information rather than real names and addresses, users generally accept this practice and most people don't alter their privacy settings.
Things get a little more complicated when your mobile device comes into the picture, however, with Google also owning Android. Using GPS along with cellular and Wi-Fi data, Google can work out where you live, work, and play, often using your search and Gmail data to feed you relevant information about local businesses and events. When you add Google+, Gmail, YouTube, and other Google services into the equation, you can begin to understand just how much information Google has access to.
Personal data is mostly stored and analysed by Google as a way to target ads, with most of Google's free services generating money directly from advertisers. The ability of Internet platforms to target users directly through ads is a big plus for advertisers, who now only have to spend money reaching out to a target market already filtered through technology. This has become the predominant way to operate online, with users prepared to accept targeted ads in exchange for free services.
In fact, targeted ads and other predictive technologies are considered a feature by Google, who highlight the advantages of narrowcasting and targeted marketing over old-fashioned broadcast style advertisements. While Google themselves, their advertisers, and many users are sure to agree, for others, predictive technology and marketing is an unwanted intrusion based on the analysis of personal data that is taken rather than given.
If you prefer to keep your personal information to yourself on the Internet, you will have to go out of your way. Both search and location history can be turned off in your Google account settings, with cookie deletion, proxy servers, and encryption software other possible solutions. While Google are more opportunistic capitalist than creepy online stalker, it's important to realise that in the age of information, privacy is no longer the default setting but a choice we all have to make for ourselves.