How to find out what data Google, Facebook and Microsoft are collecting on you
It’s no secret that many of the big Internet companies out there are collecting copious amounts of data on you. In fact, Google goes as far as recording your voice searches (and some voice conversations) and saving it into a database. You can of course access that database yourself, but the amount of data collection is still a little disconcerting, especially if you’re a privacy buff.
Today, we’re going to show you how to access the data Google, Facebook and Microsoft collect on you, why they do it, and even show you if it’s possible to get rid of it in order to reclaim some of your privacy.
Why companies collect data
Companies collect data for a myriad of reasons, but there are two major reasons — to improve their services and to target ads at you and your demographic. Collecting different types of data (i.e. when you log into a service, how you use a service, bug yours experience using a service, etc) allow companies to better optimize their product for the best possible user experience. Without this type of data collection, companies would have to rely on surveys and bug reports sent in to improve their service, which isn’t nearly as accurate nor is there usually enough data from these reports to identify an issue properly.
The other reason companies collect data is for ads. Many of the services you use online are free — Facebook, Twitter, even some Microsoft products, just to name a few. Unfortunately, as the old adage goes, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Companies do have to make money. In fact, it costs a lot of money to keep their free services operating, especially when you have to scale something worldwide like Facebook or Twitter.
That’s where ads come into play. However, any old ad won’t do. Companies collect data at you so that they can show you relevant ads (usually through the method of cookies), making you more likely to click on that ad and buy something instead of an ad that was just randomly served to you.
What data are these companies collecting?
Luckily, some of these companies are pretty transparent. This is beneficial in that you, at the very least, can know what type of data companies like Google and Facebook are pulling from you using their services.
“We collect the content and other information you provide when you use our Services, including when you sign up for an account, create or share, and message or communicate with others. This can include information in or about the content you provide, such as the location of a photo or the date a file was created. We also collect information about how you use our Services, such as the types of content you view or engage with or the frequency and duration of your activities.”
This is what data Microsoft is collecting from its users:
“Microsoft collects data to operate effectively and provide you the best experiences with our products. You provide some of this data directly, such as when you create a Microsoft account, submit a search query to Bing, speak a voice command to Cortana, upload a document to OneDrive, purchase an MSDN subscription, sign up for Office 365, or contact us for support. We get some of it by recording how you interact with our products by, for example, using technologies like cookies, and receiving error reports or usage data from software running on your device. We also obtain data from third parties.”
I would go out on a limb and say that Microsoft collects a whole lot more than Google and Facebook, primarily because the Redmond-based company is built deep into the confines of your computer with the Windows operating system. So, not only do they have their own search engine — Bing — but can also collect data on some of the simplest interactions you do on a daily basis with your PC.
And finally, this is the data Google is pooling from its users:
Google grabs a lot of the same data as Facebook — names, email addresses, photos, phone numbers, device information, search queries and payment information, if you enter it. They also collect actionable information, such as how you interact with websites that have AdWords and other Google technologies integrated. On top of that, they collect information on how you use their own services (if that wasn’t already a given) — Gmail, Google Drive, Google+ and so on.
Can you see this data?
For companies that are more transparent, you can totally see all of the data that they’ve collected on you! In this article, we’re outlining three big companies specifically — Google, Microsoft and Facebook. Facebook allows you to download your data, but Microsoft, unfortunately, does not. Microsoft does give you a small peak into the data they have on you, but we’ll outline that in a minute.
The biggest one that allows you to see an extensive amount of data is Google. They show you literally almost everything with their My Activity tool.
To access this tool, head to www.myactivity.google.com/myactivity. Once you’re there, if you’re not already logged in, you’ll need to log into your Google account.
From here, the My Activity tool will show you everything they have on you, broke down into a day-by-day schedule. Data they collected on your for the present day may not show up right away, but if you come back the next, it should all be there.
It’s worth mentioning that Google also has a Privacy Checkup tool. This tool walks you through various steps to make sure you are sharing data and personal information that you want to share. As part of this tool, Google will help you turn off things you aren’t comfortable with.
Can you get rid of this data?
With Facebook, you can download your data for free; however, you can not get rid of it. You do have the option of deleting your account, but Facebook often still preserves this information. Some people have said that Facebook will delete all of your information off of their servers after your account has been deleted for a specific period of time, but this is just a rumor and hasn’t been confirmed by Facebook at all.
With Google, there’s no getting rid of your data off of their servers either. Google does offer a fair bit of freedom to data collection — you can turn off location sharing (but you’ll lose some functionality of apps in return), change your preferences and so on. However, you can’t get rid of the current or past information Google has collected. There’s just no getting rid of that outright. You can, just like Facebook, download the pool of data Google has collected on you for your records.
There’s a myriad of preferences you can alter to stop certain aspects of tracking within your “My Account” page, but that doesn’t stop all data collection. Google still collects different types of data on you just for the use of their “free” services.
It’s pretty much the same thing in regards to Microsoft, although Microsoft claims they give you more of a choice. For instance, Microsoft will ask you if they can collect personal data for a service (usually in the form of a Terms of Service agreement), but you can decline. However, if you decline to provide that data to a service that requires it, you won’t be able to use that service. That’s just the tradeoff. You can remove data, stop data from being collected, and see what data Microsoft has on you. However, once again, you won’t be able to outright delete any past or present information Microsoft has from their servers.
What can I do about it going forward?
There really isn’t anything you can do about data collection. Once you sign-up for a service like Facebook and agree to the terms, you’re telling them that they can collect certain aspects of personal information.
The only way to avoid data collection is to avoid buying a smartphone, avoid signing up for online services, and finally, browse the web anonymously.
Of course, all of this isn’t too difficult, depending on how many comforts you want or need in your life. Someone who doesn’t rely on technology too much can avoid data collection very easily (if they haven’t already signed up for Internet accounts like Facebook). But, that might be a whole lot more difficult for someone who relies on technology and social media for their employment.
Ideas for replacing the Internet
If you’re extremely worried about the data collection and have decided to give up (or haven’t even signed up) social media, smartphones and the like, below are some tips for replacing certain aspects.
One of the big aspects of social media is personal connections — reconnecting with folks you haven’t seen in a long time. If you’re going to get rid of social media, you can often lose those connections again. However, you can still stay in touch through traditional means, such as letters. Letters are nice because they’re a whole lot more personal and even special, since people rarely receive one nowadays. Write more letters in place of social media — you might not only surprise someone, but it’s also still a great way to stay in touch with a friend or loved one.
Phone calls are another great way to stay in touch with people — even if it’s with your traditional flip phone or “dumb” phone. It’s also a more personal way to stay in touch with folks over text speech, which seems to have become our standard medium for conversation.
Libraries and book stores
Another thing you lose when you start trying to avoid data collection is quick access to information by way of a search engine. Libraries are a great alternative. It’s generally free to sign-up for a library card to rent books to find information you’re looking for. There’s also the option of book stores, although books do cost money, whereas renting a book from the library is free.
Another great way to find information is through personal conversation — asking someone else a question that you’re curious about that they might know. Not only do you make more connections this way, but can potentially engage in some very thoughtful discussion.
While this doesn’t necessarily save you any time or money, it does provide you with something that many these days might consider even more valuable: privacy. We, these days, have become extremely concerned about our privacy, so it’s at least worth knowing that data companies are collecting from the services that we use the most.
If anything, we hope this helps you become more aware of the data that is being collected from you now, as well as future data that might be collected as a result of more services you sign up for and use.