Google’s Users are the Real Commodities – Pt. 1
A Monthlong Magnification of Google: the Company, the Technologies, and the Extracurricular Activities
Every time you use a program offered by search giant Google, you are handing them your personal information – free of charge. From credit card numbers, photos, emails and online chats to home addresses, personal calendars and relationship status, every word that you type using a Google program is strategically gathered and stored.
Here’s a short rundown of the personal information collected by specific Google products and services:
Google collects any search term a user enters and associated IP addresses and cookie information with time stamps for “as long as it [is] useful.”(2) This information is personal and uniquely identifying.(3)
Google records credit card information and payment information,(7) information about each transaction, including the transaction amount, a description provided by the seller of the goods or services being purchased, the names of the seller and buyer, and the type of payment used.(8)
Google keeps an index of a Google Desktop user’s files, emails, music, photos, and chat and web browser history.(9)
Google states that they “may record information about your usage, such as when you use Google Talk, the size of your contact list and the contacts you communicate with, and the frequency and size of data transfers… [I]nformation displayed or clicked on in the Google Talk interface (including UI elements, settings, and other information) is also recorded. Instant-message chats between users that are kept on servers unless one of the users has gone “off the record;” a feature that Google allows a user to block messages from being saved in server logs.(10)
Address information requested often including the user’s home address.(11)
A user’s email history with default settings to retain emails “forever.”(12) This applies to emails you choose to delete.
“Google’s computers process the information in your messages for various purposes including… delivering advertisements and related links.”(13) This essentially means that the content of your emails is examined and information is used to serve relevant ads when the email is displayed. According to the patent application for this technology, some of the information that can be analyzed is the body of the emails, senders name and email, subject line, information derived from web pages links, time email was sent, geographic location of sender, and geographic location or recipient.(14)
The patent application also indicates that the technology can be used to allow advertisers to “put targeted ads or serve ads in association with any document based on structured information.”(15)
The contents of your calendar are stored on Google servers along with “when and for how long you use the service, the frequency and size of data transfers, and the number of events and calendars you create. Information displayed or clicked on in your Google Calendar account (including UI elements, ads, links, and other information) is also recorded.” Among other uses, the information assists Google in “delivering related information.”(16)
With Google Calendar you can create event notices and invitations, but “when you invite other people to Calendar events, we collect and maintain information associated with those invitations, including email addresses, dates and times of the events, and any responses from guests.”(16)
Google records which news/RSS feeds a user reads.(17)
Google Docs records your IP address, login times and dates, and actions and stores and maintains your documents, including previous versions.(18) And, the contents of your documents could be fair game for Google as well. By signing up for Google Docs you also give them rights to the work you do on Google Docs, including the contents of your documents.(19)
GOOG-411 collects and stores your phone number, which is possible in the majority of cases.(22)
If you block caller id before your call, some carriers will still send your phone number to Google. However, in these cases, Google states that it “will not store any information relating to the blocked call”(22) and provides steps for deleting information that Google has stored in relation to your phone number.
GOOG-411 also collects and stores a copy of all of your voice commands to “audit, evaluate, and improve the voice recognition capabilities of the service.”(22)
Google has also indicated that this will help them develop a speech-to-text model that could be used for video search, but what else could they use our voices for?(23)
What does this mean?
Users are essentially paying Google for the use of the company’s free services and applications. Information collected about users is much more valuable than a service fee. Google is making billions from advertising each year and they continue to grow each year.
In our next installment, we’ll see what kind of user information Google collects through services such as YouTube and Orkut.
2. In the Matter of Google Inc. and DoubleClick, Inc., Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Complaint, April 20, 2007; Google Log Retention Policy FAQ, posted on Official Google Blog in PDF, March 14, 2007, pg. 1, par. 1.
4. Google Log Retention Policy FAQ, posted on Official Google Blog in PDF, March 14, 2007, pg. 1, par. 1.
5. Google Log Retention Policy FAQ, posted on Official Google Blog in PDF, March 14, 2007, pg. 1, par. 1.
6. The Official Google Blog, Taking steps to further improve our privacy practices, March 14, 2007, posted by Peter Fleischer, Privacy Counsel-Europe, and Nicole Wong, Deputy General Counsel.
7. In the Matter of Google Inc. and DoubleClick, Inc., Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Complaint, April 20, 2007.
10. Google Inc. and DoubleClick, EPIC, April 20, 2007; Google Talk Privacy Notice, February 7, 2006, last visited April 1, 2008, http://www.google.com/talk/privacy.html.
11. Google Inc. and DoubleClick, EPIC, April 20, 2007.
12. Google Inc. and DoubleClick, EPIC, April 20, 2007.
13. Gmail Privacy Notice, October 14, 2005, last visited April 1, 2008.
14. Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Gmail Privacy Page; United States Patent Application No. 20040059712, United States Patent & Trademark Office, filed June 2, 2003, search for and find at http://www.uspto.gov/patft/index.html.
15. See note 14.
17. Google Inc. and DoubleClick, EPIC, April 20, 2007.
23. Google wants your phonemes, InfoWorld, October 23, 2007.