My Activity: a tool to see what Google knows about you

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How much does Google really know about us?

Well, let’s see… how deep is the ocean, and how high is the sky? Probably both are a bit tighter than the ever-expanding capacity of Google’s maw.

Depending on which of its tools we use, Google knows what we think, what we need, what we desire, our political and spiritual beliefs, our age, our gender, what music we listen to, what we watch, what we read, where we’ve been, where we plan to go, where we work, where we hang out, where we live, who we meet, where we shop, when we shop, what we buy, how much money we’re worth, how much we spend, and how much energy we consume.

How does it amass all that data? Through Google search, the Chrome browser, Gmail, Google News, Google+, Book Search, YouTube, Picasa, Translation, Maps, Street Views, Waze, Nest, and… well, the list keeps going, and growing, as Google acquires more companies and more data-crunching ability.

Visual.ly has laid out how Google knows what and which tools are feeding it in this nice infographic.

Google is, of course, an advertising company. It makes money by following us around online and targeting ads it thinks stand a chance of getting our attention.

If you don’t like it, well, you can always stop using those Google tools. Toss the smart thermostat and stop using Waze to figure out the fastest way to get where you’re going.

At least, that’s the way it’s been, until now. Google has launched a new, opt-in ad service for non-Google sites and tools that shows how it tracks your internet activity – what you’ve searched for, visited and watched on Google services – and actually lets you delete specific items or entire topics that get associated with your account.

The tool is Google’s new My Activity setting.

It shows users what its ad-tracking service has learned about them – across search, YouTube, Chrome, Android and everything else – and it allows users to opt in or out of a new personalised ads service.

You might well be surprised by how much Google knows about you, particularly if you don’t use tools that block scripts, cookies and ads, such as Ghostery, Privacy Badger and/or AdBlocker.

My Activity includes a setting that lets you choose ads that are relevant and useful.

When “ads based on your interests” is turned on, you’ll see ads based on your prior search queries, the videos you’ve watched on YouTube, as well as other information associated with your account, such as your age range or gender.

On Google sites such as YouTube, you’ll see ads related to your interests, which you can edit. You can also block some ads that you don’t want to see.

Sorry, there’s no way to turn adds off. With “ads based on your interests” turned off, you’ll still see ads.

They’ll be less targeted and more based on information such as your general location: city and state. You won’t be able to edit your interests: in fact, all the advertising interests associated with your Google account will be deleted.

You also now have the ability to turn off targeted advertising when it comes to your activity on websites beyond google.com.

You’ll be able to mute some ads that don’t interest you, you may see ads related to your interests and previous visits to other websites, and the ads may be based on anonymous demographic details such as age and gender. They also may be based on your general location (such as city or state) or the current page or app you’re looking at.

Turn it off, and again, you’ll still see (less relevant) ads.

Google’s also offering a Chrome extension to permanently opt out of Google’s DoubleClick tracking cookie.

It won’t spare you from ads. And some reviewers on the Chrome webstore said it didn’t even keep them from being exposed to targeted ads.

Unfortunately, there is, as one extension reviewer noted, neither fairy dust nor other magic that will keep you from Google ads.

There are, however, a good amount of stories about adblockers from Naked Security!