Google, Privacy, Search, Text Mining

How Much Google Knows About You

As the U.S. Justice Department put pressure on Google this week to hand over their search records in a questionable pursuit of evidence for an overturned pornography law, I wondered: How much information does Google really know about us? Strangely, at nearly the same time an email arrived from Google (one of the Google Friends Newsletters) telling me that they had just launched Google Personal Search Trends. Someone in the legal department must not have vetted that email: Google Personal Search Trends reveals exactly how much they know about you. So, how much?

A lot. If you have a Google account (you have one if you have a software developer’s username, a Gmail account, or other Google service account), you can login to your Personal Search Trends page and find out. I logged in and even though I’ve never checked a box or filled out a consent form saying that I don’t mind if Google collects information about my search habits, there appeared a remarkable and slightly unsettling series of charts and tables about me and what I’m interested in.

You can discover not only your top 10 search phrases but also the top 10 sites you visit and the top 10 links you click on. Like Santa, Google knows when you are awake and when you are sleeping—amazingly, no searches for me between midnight and 6 AM ET over the past 12 months. And comparing my search habits with its vast database of users, Google Personal Search Trends tells me that I might also like go to websites on RSS, Charles Dickens, Frankenstein, search engine optimization, and Virginia Tech football. (It’s very wrong about that last one, which I hope it only derives from my search terms and websites visited and not also from the IP address of my laptop in an office on the campus of a Virginia state university.)

Of course, you begin to wonder: wouldn’t someone else like to see this same set of charts and tables? Couldn’t they glean a tremendous amount of information about me? This disturbing feeling grows when you do some more investigation of what Google’s storing on your hard drive in addition to theirs. For instance, if you use Google’s Book Search, they know through a cookie stored on your computer which books you’ve looked at—as well as how many pages of each book (so they can block you from reading too much of a copyrighted book).

Seems like the time is ripe for Google to offer its users a similar deal to the one TiVo has had for years: If you want us to provide the “best” search experience—extras in addition to the basic web search such as personalized search results and recommendations based on what you seem to like—you must provide us with some identifying information; if you want to search the web without these extras, then so be it—we’ll only save your searches on a fully anonymous basis for our internal research. Surely when government entities and private investigators hear about Google Personal Search Trends, they’ll want to have a look. One suspects that in China and perhaps the United States too, someone’s already doing just that.

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