Google Has an Eye on You: Is that Ok?

Everywhere I go, I am being followed. 
You probably are too and I am not sure how I feel about it. 

Back in 2009 Google had this idea, a convenient tool really, that would allow people to share their location with others. Novel and useful they thought. No more nagging, “when will you be home?” or “where are you now?” from your friends and family. Just a simple app that broadcasted your location by text message. Later Google integrated this feature into Google Maps where it lives now in almost obscurity, all the while collecting your location data.

Most of the time I do not think about how Google is observing me, but every once in a while, they send me a summary of the places I have visited in a report called Google Timeline. Do you remember where you were last Tuesday at 7:32 PM? Neither do I, but Google knows exactly where I was. It knows all sorts of things not only about last Tuesday but the whole a year of last Tuesdays. Here is an example. In my 2021 year-end summary I learned this about myself:

My 2021 Google Timeline

  • I took 27 Trips
  • We visited 334 places in 70 different cities
  • Travelled 23,429 miles (this seems astonishing to me)
  • I spent 76 hours shopping – in actual stores. Stunning given that since COVID I feel like I live under a rock
  • We also spent 166 hours eating in restaurants (mostly outdoors)

The data goes on and on. We went hiking on trails. Visited our local parks.  Travelled to the grocery store. It is all there in sometimes very specific detail like the fact that I visited Home Depot 63 times. Yes, 63 times! (Full disclosure: We were working on a DIY home improvement project and I tend to forget to buy everything I need on the first trip).

Where there is Data, There is a Purpose?

We all know by now Google uses this information and their machine learning analytic tools to suggest places for you to visit or for a great restaurant recommendation. The latter being part of how Google generates 80% of their revenue – roughly $150 billion annually. The data they collect is impressive and something you can download if you are curious about your own travels ::here::.

In 2020 Google announced they would begin deleting customers location data older than 18 months. However, I was surprised to find five years of my data when I asked for a download. If “where were you last Tuesday” seems difficult, imagine “where were you on a random Tuesday five years ago”! Understandably my recent movements could be valuable to Google’s analytics and promoted advertising, but I am puzzled as to why five years of data is lying around. The aged data is likely unused and contributes to Google’s dark data stores. But my thought is what I did years ago is not very useful to my interests today.

Into the Data Shadows

Google Timeline location tracking can of course, be disabled. We can try to live our lives in the data shadows – untracked, unknown, moving about as a data-ghost in our suburban equivalents of a James Bond film. Google will not know I spend too much time at Home Depot because I am horrible at making lists. Maybe, just maybe, there is a near future where Google knows this about me and they suggest (magically) a new list making app, or better yet I am prompted, without searching, for the perfect DIY video from Google’s YouTube that makes me smarter.  And possibly, while I am still in the store my phone ‘pings’ to recommend a few other (forgotten) items before I reach the checkout lane in a very Amazon-esque manner.  Maybe Google knowing a few things about me that I might not know myself could make my life better. Until then, well I am driving to an unknown location. You know the one…

My opinions are clearly my own. If you like them, please read more at derekwgibson.com or find me at medium.com/@derekwgibson

Bonus: Google’s algorithm assigns a probability to your movements. Although in this data snapshot while driving 25MPH in a car, I am humbled to think Google thought there was at least a 1.4% chance I might be walking that fast! If fact it was more likely I was walking than riding a motorcycle. But of course, Google probably also knows from other data I do not own a motorcycle.

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