We all know that most online companies are collecting data about how we use their products. Of course, they need to retain information in order for their services to work. For some companies, like Google and Facebook, collecting data is also a part of their business model. Both of these companies make money by collecting data about their users and then using that data to target and serve advertisements. Google, Facebook, and other similar companies are pretty up-front about this: they're able to offer free or low-cost services in exchange for access to the information you share with them. There's another class of companies out there too, ones that collect data without getting your permission: Vizio and Bose (depending on how current lawsuits play out) may fall into this category.
For this article, we'll be focusing on Google. Our aim here is to answer a few questions:
- How does TSS's relationship with Google work?
- What information is Google recording about you?
- Can you delete or edit the information that Google is collecting?
- How can you keep Google from collecting data about you in the future?
TSS & Google's Relationship
The primary service that we're using from Google is called G Suite for Education. This is a version of Google's G Suite productivity software specifically meant for educational institutions, and Google gives us access to G Suite for free. Google offers a whole bunch of different apps and services as a part of G Suite and they're divided into two categories: Core Services and Additional Services. It's important to understand the difference because Google collects data differently based on which category of service you're using.
Additional Google Services are a little different. Basically, these applications do show advertisements but for K-12 G Suite for Education customers (us), they also refrain from using information from Additional Services to target ads. Examples of additional services include Google Photos, YouTube, Blogger, and Google Maps. Here's the full list.
What does this mean in practice? If you're using Core Services, you won't see advertisements. If you're using Additional Services, you might. Google doesn't use any of our data to target advertisements to us.
As I mentioned at the beginning, there's a lot of data that Google collects about us that's required to make their services work properly. I don't know if there's an official name for this kind of data, so I'll call these reports G Suite Activity Logs. For instance, Google logs every email sent or received at TSS, including the subject line, sender, recipient, and timestamp. Similarly, Google keeps track of when and where TSS users are logging into Google services, when and how they interact with files in Drive, changes that are made to Google Groups, and any changes that are made in Calendar. You can dig in and learn exactly what data gets logged in the Google support article on the subject.
Google doesn't use any of this data for advertising purposes; these logs mostly help us in the IT department when we need to answer a question from a member of the Organization. All of the questions below, submitted by TSS employees, have been answered using these Google reporting tools:
- Who deleted that file in Google Drive?
- Did X employee actually send a resignation email to their boss?
- Who RSVP-ed "Yes" or "Maybe" for the all-organization Google Calendar event?
- Have there been any suspicious logins outside of Teton County from X's Google account?
What Other Data Is Google Recording About Me?
One thing that I, personally, appreciate about Google's approach to privacy is how open they are about what they collect. You can view everything Google collects and then choose what you want to do with it. To see a full report, go to myactivity.google.com and log in with your TSS account, if necessary. What you'll see is a timeline of your activity on Google services, in chronological order.
If you're logged into your TSS account, you'll notice that there's no data on your use of Core Services (because Google doesn't log data from Core Services for advertising), but activity in Additional Google Services will appear. For example, in my account I see a history of YouTube videos I've watched. It's also instructive to try switching to a personal Google account and see how your history is different. As an example, here's my search history from my personal account; I was researching different bike bells. If you have an Android phone, you'll also see a history of every app you've opened on your phone and when you used it.
I recommend that you play around with the different features of the MyActivity page on your own. If you're a frequent use of voice commands with Google (as I am), you can even play back or delete the original audio of your Google searches.
There's another kind of data that Google also collects about you, especially if you have an Android device or if you use Google Maps a lot: location data. You can view your Google location history by going to maps.google.com and selecting "Your Timeline" from the sidebar.
Now, if you're using your TSS account, you probably won't see much except for an option to delete your location data. For personal accounts, though, you'll see a lot more, especially if you use an Android phone with Location Services turned on:
This can be alternately creepy and/or useful, depending on your perspective. For instance, I've used my Timeline to help me remember when I arrived at work on a day when I forgot to clock in or to review my biking activity for the Wellness Challenge.
Can You Delete or Edit the Information that Google is Collecting?
Simply put, yes.
To delete items from your activity log, go to myactivity.google.com, click on the three-dot menu for any item you'd like Google to forget about, then choose 'Delete':
To delete lots of your data at once, then choose the "delete activity by" option from the sidebar. You'll have the option to delete all Google data for a certain date range ("destroy all records of my activity on Mardi Gras!") or by individual services ("delete my entire search history").
In Timeline, it works much the same for location data. You can delete individual stops from your day using the same three-dot menu if, say, you don't want any record that you cheated on your paleo diet again:
You can also delete entire days from your timeline by scrolling to the top of a day's events, then clicking the trash can icon:
All in all, I think Google does a reasonably good job of keeping to their mission statement: Organizing the world's information and making it accessible and useful. They are retaining lots of data about you (as are most web services companies), but Google is pretty open about their policies and they let you use, migrate, and delete that data whenever you choose.
How Do I Minimize What Google Knows About Me?
There are a few tactics that you can use to minimize the digital footprints you leave as you move around the web, not just with Google, but for any web services that retain information about you. Note that nearly all of the options below involve some inconveniences and trade-offs. I'll leave it to you to decide which ones are worth the effort.
Minimize your Use of Google Services and Only Use Core Services
Obviously, you can share less of your data with Google if you choose not to use their services. There are some services you have to use if you're working at TSS: Mail, Calendar, Drive, and Docs are pretty much required. All of these are Core Services, however, and Google doesn't use that information for advertising purposes or share it with third parties (unless they're given a court-order). If you want to minimize what Google knows about you, don't use Additional Services like YouTube and Google Photos. If you have an Android phone, turn off Location Services. The drawbacks here are pretty obvious, though: you don't get to take advantage of the benefits of those Additional Services. If you turn off Location Services, none of your location-based apps (like Google Maps, Strava, or Pokemon Go) will work properly.
While you're at it, you could also use a web browser other than Chrome. Bear in mind, however, that other browser vendors like Apple (Safari) and Microsoft (Internet Explorer and Edge) use web browsing data in similar ways. If you're looking for a privacy-focused browser, Mozilla Firefox is our top recommendation (though there are other good options), as it's maintained by a non-profit whose mission is to promote an open and accessible internet.
Browse in Incognito Mode
All modern browsers have an Incognito or Private Browsing mode available for use. Incognito windows don't store any information after they've been closed, like your web history. Most importantly, this means that an incognito window will delete all 1st and 3rd-party cookies when it's closed. Cookies are small, tasty bits of code that websites use in order to 'maintain state' as you move from page to page. They're also often used to track your browsing history, for both good and nefarious purposes. Deleting your cookies helps minimize (but does not eliminate) what websites' you visit know about you.
By deleting your cookies each time your close your incognito windows, you limit the amount of data that websites (like Google) accumulate about you. The down side is that your browser will basically forget about you each time you start it back up again. You know how Amazon always seems to know who you are, regardless of whether you're logged in or not? Cookies makes this possible, so expect to enter your password more often, to get less-accurate search results, and also to be confronted with more "prove you're not a robot" CAPTCHA challenges. To open an incognito mode window, the shortcut is CTRL + SHIFT + P (Firefox and Edge) or CRTL + SHIFT + N (Chrome).
Use a Privacy-Focused Search Engine like DuckDuckGo
Almost all search engines, including Google, retain data on the searches you make in order to better target ads to you and also to show you more relevant search results. There are a few privacy-focused search engines out there, however, that expressly don't do any profiling of their users. One of the most prominent is DuckDuckGo, which expressly sets out not to track users' activity. This is a double-edged sword. The site doesn't retain information about you, but this also means that you'll see less-relevant search results.
As an example, if I search for "Persephone" in both Google and DuckDuckGo, I get very different results. Google knows who I am, that I live in Jackson, and even that I ate at a bakery called Persephone a few days ago, so it puts Persephone Bakery among the top results.
DuckDuckGo on the other hand, has no idea who I am or where I am, so it gives me a full page of results about Persephone, the princess of the underworld in Greek mythology. If I actually want to find information about the bakery, I have to be scroll through more than 100 results or I need to be more specific in my search.
Google, like many other web services today, asks us to make a trade-off: give them access to information about us and, in return, they're able to offer useful services for free or low cost. Google isn't alone in this, as Facebook, SnapChat, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft, and virtually every other free service you use online requires a similar bargain.
This aggregation of data about us is an ongoing concern that will likely be debated for years (if not decades) to come. In the meantime, I think we need to be responsible for understanding these trade-offs and making appropriate decisions. It's also important that we help our students comprehend how their data is being used by these companies and give them the tools and knowledge to make good decisions about what data to share and how to exercise control of that data. If you're concerned about how online services may be collecting data on you, consider the following practices:
- Only use G Suite Core Services and minimize your use of Additional Services.
- Browse the web in an Incognito Window
- Vote with your feet. Stick to services that have demonstrated honesty and respect for their users and don't use services that are careless with their users' data.
- Periodically review your Google privacy settings and make sure that you're happy with how they're configured.
- G Suite for Education Privacy Page: https://edu.google.com/trust/
- An EFF Report on Student Privacy: https://www.eff.org/wp/school-issued-devices-and-student-privacy