Is Google Really Always Listening?

By Brad Girtz, 29th April 2018

With the recent scandal involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, many people are asking what online companies know about individuals and how are they able to collect data. With that in mind we decided to help users understand what companies actually know and what data they have access to.

How do companies collect user data?

There are a number of common ways most companies are able to collect data on users. The first is search queries/interest. So if you are using Google to search for something or spending time on a company’s Facebook page that activity is noted as potential interest and tied to your online identity.

The second way companies collect data is through associated behaviours. These are things you may do online that indicate a potential interest in a certain product. For instance, if you are regularly posting on Facebook about swimming, you should not be surprised if you see adverts for bathing suits. This type of targeting can get very complex. Take for instance, someone who has searched for house moving services. People who have just moved house are more likely to buy or rent tools. This could trigger a company to target that person with adverts for tools commonly purchased by someone who has just moved.

Another way companies gather data online is simply to let you provide it. If your Facebook profile has your name, age, location, gender etc. all that data can be targeted by advertisers. People put out a huge amount of information about themselves. Even things like images share more than you think. Many image sharing apps record a location along with an image so when you share one you are sharing both.

Your friends are another potential data goldmine for advertisers. Let’s say you have never created a Facebook profile but many of your friends are on the social network. Facebook probably has information on you which could include your name, age phone number and even some location data based on tagging in images.

The last common way online firms gather data for advertising is through past behaviour. If you have bought plane tickets to Italy last year that data, along with other information could lead to you being targeted for more travel advertising later on.

What methods of data collection are not used?

There have been a number of accusations by people that Google and Facebook use more intrusive methods of collecting data. These accusations include microphones and GPS location data. While there is some small use of these techniques, they are very focused.

The most common accusation is that Google or another large internet company is listening through an open mic on your phone.

In the above video which has recently gained notoriety online, someone gives an example of what they see as Google listening. We actually tried this same experiment in our offices and found we could not replicate the results. Both Google and Facebook flatly deny doing this. There are however some examples of something sort of like this happening. There are some apps that garnered attention from the New York Times because they listen to what you are watching on TV. These apps provide data used by television and music companies. The entertainment companies supply snippets of audio from their shows. The app then uses a phone’s mic to try to listen to the ambient noise in a room. If it hears something that matches the audio snippet supplied by the entertainment companies, it knows the phone’s owner is watching a particular show. These apps still have to request access to use your mic and in the Ts & Cs they tell users what they do. To avoid this type of data collection you will have to deny access to your mic for apps that do not explicitly need it to function. Google may also collect small snippets of audio when it thinks you say “Ok Google” which engages its virtual assistant feature.

Another common accusation is that a phone’s GPS location data is used. This is sort of true. When you have your GPS data turned on it may be used by a Google app like Google Maps. However Google does not always track users. The location data is used differently by different apps and how it is used must be detailed in the apps terms of use. You can also turn off your GPS which stops the tracking. The only other tracking that goes on is the data sent to cell towers. At one point Google was collecting basic location data based on the mobile tower an Android phone was using but they claim to have stopped. That data also only gave them a rough idea of where a user was rather than a precise location. Google said they collected this data for a very brief time and the data was not saved or used for advertising.

Should I be worried?

The short answer is no, as long as you take precautions. The main ways companies gather your data is by simply collecting the information you are willingly putting online or using data in your searches. You can also delete at least some of the information companies collect on you. It is important to remember that, while companies want lots of data on users to target them with advertising, they also don’t want to look creepy or intrusive.

Finally if you are really worried about sharing any data with online companies, there is a good rule of thumb to help you spot people looking for your information. It goes, “If the product is free, you are the product”. That means when someone is giving away a game or something else without charging, they are probably planning to make money by collecting data.


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