Google privacy row: what does Google know about you?

Regulators say Google's privacy policy is too vague and raises 'deep concerns about data protection'

Google has been urged to change its privacy policy amid concerns over the way it gathers, protects and uses information about users. European data regulators fear the internet giant could have breached Europe's privacy rules.

Regulators stopped short of accusing Google of acting illegally, but have expressed concerns that the unified privacy policy provides customers with "incomplete and approximate" details which raise "deep concerns about data protection and the respect of the European law".

In a letter to Google's CEO Larry Page, the European Union's data protection working party wrote: "Google must meet its obligations with respect to the European and national data protection legal frameworks and has to determine the means to achieve these legal requirements."

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What personal information does Google collect?

Google's privacy policy breaks down the information that it collects into two different categories: the information you volunteer and the information it obtains from observing the way you interact with its services.

For example, you may volunteer your name, email address, telephone number and credit card details when using Google's services. On top of that, Google will record which of its services you use and how often you use them, your search queries, the places you visit, and even what kind of device you use, such as the model of phone you use and the operating system you have on your laptop.

To find out what Google knows about you, log in to Gmail or one of your other Google accounts and then click here. To see what the company thinks you are interested in, click the 'edit' tab next to Interests.

How else has Google collected data?

Last year, Google admitted that its Streetview cars, fitted with four-way cameras on their roofs to map cities, had also been using other technology to scoop up passwords, emails and other personal information as they passed by mobile and computer users in the US. Google agreed to a fine of $7m to settle the case that had been brought against them by 38 states. The fine was a "tiny" punishment, the New York Times said, but came as "a breakthrough for a company that [Google critics] say has become a serial violator of privacy". Niki Fenwick, a Google spokeswoman, said at the time "we work hard to get privacy right at Google, but in this case we didn’t, which is why we quickly tightened up our systems to address the issue".

In 2012, the Wall Street Journal broke a story about Google bypassing Apple's security provisions to track Mac and iPhone users' web browsing. Google used code that bypassed the Safari web browser's built in security, allowing the company to track how Apple users browse the internet.

How does Google use this information?

Google uses your data in a variety of ways. First, it uses it to make money by selling it to advertisers. Through exploiting Google's data, advertisers can opt to target a particular demographic with a promotion. So, for example, if Google identifies that you are a 34- to 45-year-old male who likes cars and luxury, then they can sell advertising slots to high-end car manufacturers, such as Mercedes or Jaguar.

In its privacy policy, Google says that it also uses the information that it collects to adjust its services, offer tailored correspondence, and generally "improve your user experience".

Is selling user data to advertisers unusual?

Google is not alone in collecting users' information and selling it to advertisers. As security expert Bruce Schneier wrote in a blog post "Surveillance is the business model of the internet".

Microsoft, Apple and Facebook all take a similar approach, collecting user data and selling it on to advertisers.

How can I stop Google from collecting my data?

It is possible to opt out of being served targeted ads by adjusting your preferences, but there is no way to opt out of Google's privacy policy altogether. This means that all your activity across Google-owned services including Google Maps, YouTube, Google Docs, Gmail, Hangouts, Picasa and many other services will be tracked.

The only foolproof way to stop Google collecting your information is through "complete internet abstinence", Dr Joss Wright, from the Oxford Internet Institute told Channel 4, but he admits that for most people, this simply won't be possible. "You're forced to use these services because they're so ubiquitous," Wright says.

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