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Googling Your Privacy

by Michael Dean Thompson

Google is the unrivaled search giant, and its Android is the second most widely used cellphone operating system in the U.S. Their additional offer of free software is all designed to leverage what they know about you and increase the number of opportunities to present highly targeted advertisements.

Part of how they leverage what they know is by watching your web usage. In the past, privacy concerns surrounded third-party cookies and hidden zero-or one-pixel images that allowed companies to see which webpages you visit, those from which you came, and often, to which pages you went—along with any data you posted and how long you were on there. Those are still an issue for poorly configured browsers.

However, Google goes further by allowing you to log into your account automatically just by turning on your phone, browser, or app and opening up features like location-aware advertising. If you use Chrome, there is always the potential the browser can relay all sorts of identifying metrics, whether or not you are logged in. Certainly, once you are logged in, Google can track your activities irrespective of your settings for things like third-party cookies.

As a result, cops have taken a keen interest in Google’s informational windfall. Police have been querying Google’s databases with increasing frequency. Their use of geolocation data is well-known, as it has led to police associating a device’s presence in a specific area during or around the time of a crime with evidence of guilt. Unfortunately, the location information provided in a geofence request can be far from precise. The location given can have a radius of hundreds of meters and still only identify a 67% chance that the device in question is within that circle. Thus, you could be blocks away from a bank robbery but still end up being yourself the prime suspect.

Google has also been receiving demands to track down authors of keyword searches. It may be that one day you look up a friend’s address to surprise her with flowers. A couple of days later, she is found murdered, and you are on the wrong side of a police interrogation. If you are curious about how it is some uneducated terrorist is able to make pipe bombs, searching the keyword on Google is probably not a great idea. Reverse keyword searches—where cops track down people who have searched for names, places, and whatever else—may be all the cops need to draw their focus in your direction.

There are a few solutions that can help, depending on your concern for privacy. For example, the search engine DuckDuckGo claims not to keep identifying metrics on its users. If you want to search Google, use a pass-through service like, which eliminates many tracking features.

The simplest but most expensive solution is to avoid purchasing Android devices. Apple and Microsoft both have said that while they do store location information, it is not done in a way that can be tracked back to the user (keep in mind, however, that location information is by its very nature identifying). A search of LexisNexis seems to bear this out, at least with respect to cops, as Google dominates the results for geofence warrants. Still, that may be attributable to the fact that the company actively pushes back against overreaching police.

Whatever device you do purchase or use, remember that each app you install and plug-in you attach to your browser is yet another vector for your data to be collected. It may be obvious that Chrome provides your data to Google, but it’s less obvious that PokemonGo also does so. One young man in Florida found himself a suspect in a crime when the app he used to track his progress cycling submitted his data to Google.

In addition, not all application developers keep your data private. They may not even know how, as was the case when a Houston company developed a content management system for police agencies such as fusion centers. When the website was cracked open by hackers, tons of personal information about both cops and suspects became public. It turned out that what should have been a highly secure system, considering its market, was not secure at all.

There will always be some degree of give and take when it comes to security. The most secure systems are featureless and difficult to use. As you modify your device to add features and simplify use, you may be making it easier for third parties like Google to collect your data. Even location data tagged with nothing more than a generic device ID is enough for hackers, corporations, and cops to identify you and perform a pattern-of-life analysis. They can find your religious affiliations, club memberships, follow you to the abortion clinic, and more.

How much security you have then depends on your level of comfort. The nearest thing to true security when using a connected device requires your constant attention.  



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