What Google and Facebook know about you

Google and Facebook store vast amounts of data about their users, which can include everything from places they have visited, to foods they liked, and who they dated.

Because Google and Facebook’s basic consumer offerings are free, they rely on online advertising to sustain their businesses.

The companies do this by creating an advertising profile of individual users.

This allows them to build targeted advertising products which offer businesses the best possible chance of particular users clicking on ads and going through with a purchase.

The upside to this is that you will be presented with ads which are more relevant, while the downside is that these services can become eerily intrusive in what data they keep on you.

It’s important to note this does not mean they sell any of your information directly to other businesses or governments, but rather incorporate your data into a product that can curate ads without exposing your interests or information.

Here is a breakdown of the information Google and Facebook capture about you, and what you can do to limit this.

Google building headline

Google provides a dedicated settings page which allows you to control the data that is saved to your account.

It even makes privacy suggestions which allows you to automatically delete certain information it captures from your activities after a particular time period.

Google allows you to download all the data stored on your Google account, which covers everything it has saved about your online activity across its different apps and platforms.

I recently downloaded mine, and the size of the archive was about 8.31GB distributed over 44 Google products. More than 7GB of this was for videos I had uploaded to YouTube.

Below is the information Google could have on you.

Personal details

This will depend on what you have provided to Google.

Google requires a name and surname at sign-up, but also allows you to add your phone number and a profile picture, among other things.

Recently, Google started asking users for their birthdays, which has become a requirement to meet child protection laws in certain countries.

Your online activity and search history

Google stores your online activity on Google sites and apps, which includes your Google Search history.

This allows the company to better curate ads based on your preferences, or to make recommendations for products or places.

You can view what Google recorded on your online activity and switch Web & App Activity on or off here.

Your location history

If you have location tracking turned on, Google stores your locations to create a map of where you have been with devices signed in to your Google account, even when you aren’t using Google apps like Google Maps or Waze.

This can include how long and how often you visit a place, or how you travelled between locations.

The aim is to improve your map searches and commute routes and to easily help you find places you’ve been to and what routes you travelled on.

You can view the map of your location history or turn this feature on or off on this page.

Your YouTube search and watch history

Google saves a record of the YouTube videos you have watched and your search history on YouTube.

This allows it to make recommendations for new YouTube videos and channels which might interest you, but will also be carried over to other Google services, which means it can be used to target you for advertising in Google Search, for example.

Click here to view what Google has saved on your YouTube viewing history and searches.

Facebook

Facebook logo on mobile

While the nature of Google’s services mean that the information it has on you is kept only by itself, users of Facebook’s apps typically willingly want to share certain posts or information with their friends.

This is why Facebook focuses much of its privacy recommendations on limiting the information available to other users, rather than what it can access from you. 

It is important to understand that all of your activity on its platform will be recorded and stored by the company, until you request its deletion.

This can include your own personal information, posts, other people’s posts on your timeline, posts you are tagged in, direct messages, as well as photos and videos you’ve uploaded and shared and been tagged in.

In addition, it will keep track of all the events you attended, your relationship and work history, the pages you like, and the groups you’ve joined.

It is logical that some of this needs to be kept, so that users can access their old photos and posts on the platform.

You are able to download all of the information Facebook has on you by selecting “Download your information” on the Your Information section of the Settings page.

This section also provides a detailed breakdown of all the information Facebook stores on you, which includes the following:

Personal details

In addition to your name and email address, Facebook has access to all the other basic background information you provide when signing up to the platform, which can include your location, work and education history, and friends and relatives on Facebook.

You can check and edit this information under the Personal Information tab in Your Information.

Your friends

Facebook keeps track of your friends list and how this changes over time, with lists of your current friends, people you have unfriended, friend requests you have sent and received, people you follow, and people who follow you. 

You will find this information under the Friends and followers tab in Your Information.

Search, interaction, and voice history

Facebook stores the words, phrases, names, and videos that you’ve searched for on the platform.

To check exactly which content this includes, you can view the Search section under the Logged information tab.

Your location history

Facebook can create a precise history of your locations from the devices on which you have given it permission to do so.

It also stores your primary location based on the current city or town you entered on your profile, the IP address of your device, or activity from the use of Facebook products like check-ins.

Facebook also keeps tabs on your logins and logouts and the particular IP address with which you were connected to the platform at the time.

Your interests

Facebook compiles a list of interest categories based on your interaction on the platform, which is used to personalise your ads.

This list can be found under the “Ads interests” section of Logged information.

Off-Facebook activity

Companies which use Facebook’s business tools can share information about your interactions on their websites and apps with the company.

For example, when you buy an item from an ecommerce store, that store may share this activity with Facebook using its business tools.

Facebook then saves this activity with your account and shows you ads with discounts for similar items from the same online shop.

Ads information

Advertisers on Facebook can upload lists or use lists that other advertisers have submitted to serve you certain ads or exclude you from their ads.

These lists can contain your email address and phone number, but it is hashed so that Facebook cannot learn any new identifying information about you.

You can view more information on which businesses have uploaded your information to Facebook by visiting the Audience-based advertising page.

Now read: Facebook snubs South African Parliament over WhatsApp privacy and fake news

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What Google and Facebook know about you