How Google is getting your information, and what to do about it.

Recently, Fox news aired a video about how Google is tracking our every move.  Since this video aired, we've had a number of inquiries asking how Google manages to do this, and if we have any tips to stop it from happening. Here's the video:

Privacy continues to be a concern for private citizens and organizations alike. Our thirst for real-time information about the world around us, in tandem with the ever-growing capabilities of our mobile devices, means that we feed big companies information about us, which they harvest to track our habits and lifestyles; data they can use to provide us (hopefully) relevant information based on what we do, and where we go. This trade-off can be useful, but sometimes we don't want to be tracked. 

What does Google track when a phone is not connected?

When we want privacy, a lot of us turn our data connections off or put the device into airplane mode. The assumption is that if we’re not connected to the internet, we can’t be tracked. The reality isn’t quite as simple.

Google, for example, can still obtain information around where we’ve been, and some of our activities, even if our devices are offline.

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The explanation isn't nefarious - it comes down to what airplane mode really does (as opposed to what we assume it does), and what the phone records when it's not connected to a network.

Airplane mode only turns off the transmission of signals for cellular, WiFi and Bluetooth. On many devices, GPS signals can still be sent and received, and the device itself records that location data periodically. Once the phone reconnects to a network, it transmits that stored location data back to Google, which then correlates the phone's location over that period of time with actual, real-world, physical locations.

Additionally, some newer phones also have accelerometers built in, so the phone records the speed of travel. Google can approximate if the phone holder was walking, cycling, driving, or even flying. When the speed is combined with the location, they can make an educated guess about how someone was getting around, where they were, and how long they spent there. On older phones, they can approximate speed based on its GPS locations (which are updated frequently). All of this without a network connection.

An when your phone is connected to a network, additional information (like proximity to known WiFi locations) is available in real-time. For example, companies like Google knows how long someone spent in coffee shop or a grocery store, and what they did while they were there (like paying for goods via Android pay, or searching for a product to compare prices via browser).

All of this data can, of course, be combined to provided targeted advertising to the user.

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The thing to remember is that Google is first and foremost an advertising company. They provide awesome 'free' services such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Fit, but the trade off is that the data they harvest from their free service offerings can be used to understand more about you and serve you with relevant advertising.

Ultimately, if you’re getting free online services from any company, there’s a strong likelihood that your data is being used (or sold) by the company. For some, this is an acceptable arrangement. For those who are concerned, there are always paid services instead.

So what can be done to reduce the amount of data you share? 

1. Disable location tracking. In most modern phones you'll find an item in the settings menu (or a sub-menu) related to location services. You can turn this off entirely, or - better still - you can review application level access and turn off the ability for specific applications to share your location. The latter is probably the better option for most people, as turning off all location services will prevent you from using maps or navigation apps, or others which need to know your exact location in order to work.

2. Disable WiFi when not in use. Power management on mobile devices has improved greatly over the last few years. The days of manually turning WiFi on and off anymore to conserve power are mostly gone, and it's generally more convenient to just just leave it on.  After all, it'll only connect to known networks (if you've set it to do that). The problem is that WiFi hardware both sends and receives information when it's turned on. That includes continually looking for networks even when not connected to one. While this makes sense most of the time as it would need to be able to see your known networks in order to connect to them, it also means that it can identify networks that other Google users have connected to in the past. If your device identifies, but doesn't connect to, that free WiFi network in, e.g. your local coffee shop, it can still transmit that back to Google, whose systems then cross reference the identifying aspects of the network, and can figure out where you were.

3. Use a VPN. Lots of people have started to do this already, but to others it remains a complex piece of technology. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) service creates an encrypted tunnel between two points - your device or system, and the VPN service provider infrastructure. Once connected, it can anonymize any digital requests you have before passing them out to the destination they were intended for. For example, if you're browsing the web normally and search Google for anything, they would normally know it's a request from you. If you use a VPN, the experience would be the same for you, but Google would only know the request came from a large VPN provider. They wouldn't be able to tie the data back to you.

4. Consider paying for services. As we've established, free services usually means your data is the valuable product to the service provider. Things usually change when services are purchased. Take a moment to look at the services you use, determine which ones are free, and take a look  at some of the fine print in the terms and conditions. You may find that you're giving access to information you don't want shared. If this is the case, it may be worth switching to a paid version of that service - or a similar service - which doesn't mine or use your information. Remember, it was only as of mid 2017 that Google officially stopped scanning it's users Gmail content for 'ad personalization' purposes.