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.

Google’s Privacy Policy states that they use this information for “[p]roviding our products and services to users, including the display of customized content and advertising.”(1)

Here’s a short rundown of the personal information collected by specific Google products and services:

Google Search
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 Announced in March 2007 that they would no longer keep personally identifying information indefinitely, but would anonymize the information after 18-24 months.(4) However, Google stated in a release FAQ that the Privacy Policy would be changed when these changes were implemented as described; the Privacy Policy has yet to be changed to reflect the 18-24 month limit.(5) It’s too late to meet their own vague goals; “we hope to implement this new data policy over the coming months (and within a year’s time);”(6) the one year mark has come and gone.

Google Checkout
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 Desktop
Google keeps an index of a Google Desktop user’s files, emails, music, photos, and chat and web browser history.(9)

Google Talk
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)

Google Maps
Address information requested often including the user’s home address.(11)

Gmail
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)

Google Calendar
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 Reader
Google records which news/RSS feeds a user reads.(17)

Google Docs
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)

The Google Privacy Policy allows Google to use your data to provide you with services, including the “display of customized content and advertising.”(20) Additional Terms of Service for Google Docs state that the rights they retain to your documents are for “the sole purpose of enabling Google to provide you with the Service in accordance with its privacy policy.”(21) This would seem to imply that Google can use the content to serve targeted advertising—possibly with the same technology Gmail uses.

1-800-GOOG-411
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.

1. Google Privacy Policy, October 14, 2005, last visited April 1, 2008.

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.

3. Google Privacy Policy, Information we collect and how we use it, Log information, October 14, 2005, last visited April 1, 2008.

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.

8. Google Checkout Privacy Policy, Information we collect and how we use it, transaction information, April 12, 2007, last visited April 1, 2008.

9. Google Inc. and DoubleClick, EPIC, April 20, 2007; Google Desktop Privacy Policy, September 21, 2007, last visited April 1, 2008.

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.

16. Google Calendar Privacy Policy, last visited April 1, 2008.

17. Google Inc. and DoubleClick, EPIC, April 20, 2007.

18. Google Inc. and DoubleClick, EPIC, April 20, 2007; Google Docs Privacy Policy, October 11, 2006, last visited April 1, 2008.

19. Google Docs Privacy Policy, October 11, 2006, last visited April 1, 2008; Google Docs Additional Terms, last visited April 1, 2008.

20. Google Privacy Policy, October 14, 2005, last visited April 1, 2008.

21. Google Docs Privacy Policy, October 11, 2006, last visited April 1, 2008; Google Docs Additional Terms, last visited April 1, 2008.

22. GOOG-411 Privacy Policy, February 2008, last visited April 1, 2008.

23. Google wants your phonemes, InfoWorld, October 23, 2007.

Image: SqueakyMarmot