I’m not just saying that, either: I recently started poking around in Google’s personal data repositories and realized that, between my wide-reaching use of the company’s services and my own brain’s inability to remember anything for more than seven seconds, Google may actually have the upper hand when it comes to knowledge about my life.
From face-tagged photos of my past adventures (what year did I go to South Dakota, again—and who went with me to that Jeff Dunham show?) to the minute-by-minute play-by-play of my not-so-adventuresome days (wait, you mean I really only left the shop once last Wednesday—and just to get a freakin’ sandwich?!), Google’s got all sorts of goods on me. Heck, even my hopes and dreams (which may or may not involve sandwiches) are probably catalogued somewhere in its systems.
And the data itself is only half the story: Google also compiles oodles of stats—stats that, for better and for worse, shed light onto the tech-connected habits of our modern lives. How many emails have you actually sent over the years, for instance, and how many thousands of webpages have you pulled up in your browser? It really is enlightening, among other things, to see your actions broken down so precisely.
Before you freak out, though, remember: The only way anyone else could get at any of this info would be if they were to gain access to your Google account—something two-factor authentication and good mobile security hygiene make highly unlikely.
And remember, too, that all this data collection is completely optional—and very much a tradeoff: By agreeing to let Google store and use your data, you’re getting access to an ever-expanding array of futuristic features at no monetary cost. But the decision is ultimately in your hands. To learn more about how Google uses specific types of data and how you can opt out of any or all areas of collection, see the ”Opting out and taking control” section at the end of this story.
All of that being said, here are some of the more amusing—and maybe slightly surprising—things you might find about yourself by prodding the right parts of Google’s noggin. How many of these items actually apply to you depends on which Google services you use and how exactly you use them. To wit: Android users who take advantage of built-in features such as voice commands, location history and photo backups will almost certainly have more data tracked by Google than non-Android users. But anyone who regularly uses Gmail, Google search, Google Maps, YouTube, Chrome and/or other Google services from any mobile device or computer will likely find at least some interesting nuggets from the following list.
- A full history of your voice commands with any Google product—including actual audio recordings
OK, Google: Remind me how silly I sound when talking to my phone (you know, when it seems like no one else is listening). If you use voice commands on Android or any other Google product (for instance, voice searches in the Google iOS app when you’re logged in with your Google account), head to the “Voice & Audio” section of Google’s My Activity site to see and hear a comprehensive list of everything you’ve ever said to that inanimate object in your pocket. And yes, your voice really does sound like that.
- An objective breakdown of your real BFFs (according to Google
Data doesn’t lie. Discover whom among your Google contacts you interact with the most by clicking the “Contacts” header on Google’s account dashboard. Just be prepared to make up excuses if your significant other doesn’t make the “Frequently contacted” list.
- How much stuff Chrome has saved about you
If you use the Chrome browser and typically stay signed into it, check out your account’s Chrome Sync settings page to see all sorts of brag- and/or shame-worthy stats about your personal browsing habits—things like how many bookmarks you’ve saved, how many tabs you have open across different devices and how many websites you’ve typed into Chrome’s address bar (since last resetting your browser’s history).
- How many Gmail conversations you’ve had
Provided you use Gmail’s archiving system instead of permanently deleting messages, you may be in for a shock: Click the aptly named “Gmail” header in Google’s account dashboard, and get ready to see why your days always seem so short.
- A full history of everywhere you’ve ever been
File this one under “Cool Yet Creepy”: Google Maps’ Timeline feature contains a detailed diary of your every move—down to the minute. No exaggeration: If you carry an Android phone and have opted into location history, the site will show you where you were every moment of every day. And if you really want to weird yourself out, open Timeline from a desktop and click the year tab in the upper-left corner of the screen. Select “All Time,” then click the red box in the lower-left corner to see an ordered list of your most visited places.
- A full list of everything you’ve done from any Android device
Your smartphone is a fantastic tool for productivity-enhancing tasks like word processing, spreadsheet creation, and… oh, who the hell are we kidding? You’re using the thing for mindless web browsing and meaningless game-playing, just like everyone else.
Opting out and taking control
Want to turn off specific types of data collection or delete existing info from your Google account history? The Google privacy site is the best place to start; there, Google provides detailed information about how each type of data is used along with links to opt out of any specific areas. You can also visit Google’s Activity controls page for a simple single-page list of on-off toggles.
If you’re looking to clean up your history for anything that Google has been tracking, head to the My Activity site. You can delete any individual item right then and there by clicking the three-dot icon in its upper-right corner and choosing Delete, or click the “Delete activity by” link in the left column for an easy way to erase info based on date and/or product.
Data collection controls can be also found on an Android device by opening the main system settings and selecting Google (or, if you’re on an older device, looking for the standalone Google Settings app) and then tapping “Personal info & privacy.”