As you know Google tracks most of the things we do online for the purpose of targeted advertising. This information is allegedly stored in a secret “shadow profile” that users can’t see or access. This is what you might not realize. Actually, such information includes highly intimate details about your identity and personal interests.
Over the last year or so, the ACCC has been conducting an inquiry into digital platforms. The commission is looking at the effect that digital search engines, social media platforms and other digital content aggregation platforms have on competition in media and advertising services markets with a focus on the impact of digital platforms on the supply of news and journalistic content.
Google combines information to infer other personal information that the consumer did not intend to provide. And because Google is able to act in an “unconstrained manner” they are able to do this with little oversight and no effective regulations to penalize them if they misuse data.
The ACCC’s preliminary report identifies concerns with the ability and incentive of key digital platforms. It does it to favor their own business interests, through their market power and presence across multiple markets.
And this is one of the big challenges that regulators like the ACCC and its international equivalents face. With Google able to operate in many markets and establish offices where the legal regime favors their activities it is hard to regulate it and to effectively punish it if it breaches laws. Such as the Australian Consumer Law and the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth).
What is Google’s Shadow Profile”?
Anyone who has used a Google service has provided the search and advertising giant with some data. All the data that Google has collected about you is held in what called a “super profile”. The shadow profile is a subset of all that data that you can’t see or access.
It’s worth noting that Australian Privacy Principle 1 states that companies subject to the Privacy Act should be clear about what data is being held and its purpose. Furthermore, other principles in the list specify that we should be a able to remain anonymous and that data is only collected with consent.
The problem with the principles is that they don’t refer to how data can be aggregated to infer new information.
For example, if Google maintains location information and search history about medications you’ve researched, they could easily infer that you have a specific health condition. That’s data you didn’t disclose, probably had no desire to expose to Google and that Google could use.
So, while you may have consented to providing Google with some data, you might not have consented to them using other data sources to create a more detailed picture of you than you thought possible.
Google Knows More About Us Than We Can imagine
It also notes that Google’s “Takeout” feature only provides a fraction of the data Google actually holds about us.
Google represents a massive vertical integration of services. They have communications through email, chat and video products, entertainment with YouTube, health data via devices connected to Android phones and massive swathes of location and movement information through geotagging of images, Maps and cellular data access.
So, it’s not surprising that some politicians are calling for a breakup of Google and other tech companies in order to break up their market power.
How to Avoid Google’s Power?
Avoiding Google is hard but not impossible. The trouble is, it’s hard to find a person who has used the Internet and hasn’t used a Google service. So it would be difficult to avoid google shadow profile. But you can start by simply not using Google as your default search engine. For example you can use DuckDuckGo.com.
Google does face competition on many fronts. But that competition is relatively weak. For example, Vimeo is a great platform but there is nowhere near as widely used as YouTube. And Gmail faces a massive number of competitors.
But when you combine all of Google’s services, they have an overwhelming array of products. All of them collect data that it can use to target ads and services.
As an example you can try Waze instead of Google Maps. It works pretty well in my experience and provides extra information. Such as traffic camera locations and warnings if you’re over the speed limit.
With email, you can look at alternative providers such as outlook.com or FastMail. Or you could invest in a NAS or mail server and roll your own if you’re a little more technically inclined. That way, you can use your own domain rather than one of the established players.
But all those things require effort and a change of established habits – something Google, and indeed Facebook and so many other large companies – depend on. The effort of making a change is one of the tools Google relies on.
Google Knows Even More About You than Facebook
Facebook knows way too much about all of us, but it’s not the only company hoarding everyone’s private data. Google knows just as much about us as Facebook (if not more), and that should trouble you, even if that data hasn’t been used as recklessly – at least, not that we know of.
When it comes to basic personal info, both companies are on pretty even footing. Assuming you feed them a normal amount of information, Facebook and Google both know your age, gender, where you live, your social circle, what you do for a living, and your general interests.
If you don’t like either platform knowing this information about you, there’s not much you can do about it. Even deleting your account won’t work. Facebook has admitted to creating “shadow profile” for non-users, and according to The Wall Street Journal, Google likely create “shadow profile” too.
Google’s great data advantage: Android and Maps
If you use an Android phone, your entire history of calls and text messages is accessible by Google. It’s unclear if Google is personally storing all that data, though it does offer access to the information in some cases. As for Facebook, the company used its Messenger app to grab call and text history from Android users for years.
One area where Google easily beats Facebook is its location tracking. Thanks to the popularity of Google Maps, the company has a detailed account of pretty much every place you’ve even been, and can easily geo-target advertising your way. (You can check out your own Google Maps history by clicking on “Manage Location History” in the bottom right corner to switch it off.)
Google dominance in search and video (YouTube) also gives it more data to play with. Both companies also have a pretty substantial record of any events you’ve attended in the past. Thanks to Google Calendar and Facebook Events.