There's a common saying on the internet: if you're not paying for a product, you are the product. The “free” online services such as email, social media, and streaming video you use on a daily basis aren't free — there are substantial costs for hosting, domain registration, maintenance, security, and so on. If you're not directly paying a share of those costs, the owners of these sites are using you as a source of income. Sometimes, this is through simple and unobtrusive banner ads on pages (as is the case here on OFFGRIDweb), but other times it's through silently capturing and reselling massive quantities of highly personalized data. Google is the world's foremost expert on tracking and monetizing user data, and the Silicon Valley tech behemoth recently added a new My Ad Center dashboard that sheds some light on the accuracy of their user tracking system.
Google's new My Ad Center opens with the slogan “Your ads, your choice.” It touts the ability to “easily customize” and “personalize” the types of ads you see on Google's various web properties such as Search and YouTube. But unless you want to reduce ads about a sensitive topic — for example, dog toy ads after your dog just passed away — the real value of My Ad Center is to see a small glimpse of what Google knows about you and your lifestyle.
Based on data including every search keyword you type, every search result link you click, and every YouTube video you watch, Google automatically develops a digital profile about you. Although it's not explicitly mentioned in Ad Center, it almost certainly also factors in information from Gmail emails you sent and received, location data from Android smartphones (i.e. businesses or other Android users you recently visited), routes traveled on Google Maps, content you watched on your Android TV, and much more. This user profile also includes specific information such as:
Google's My Ad Center also shows the general ad topics you're likely interested in, as well as “Brands for You.” If you wish, you can ask Google to reduce ads about “Sensitive Topics” (alcohol, dating, gambling, pregnancy and parenting, and weight loss). Finally, Ad Center shows recent ads that similar brands have paid to display to users that fit your specific demographics. So, for example, let's say XYZ Widget Co. wants to display ads to unmarried men under the age of 25 with an interest in technology — Google will happily oblige. Of course, this profile can also be used to target more vulnerable demographics, such as predatory loan companies serving ads to low-income users with limited education.
Go to myadcenter.google.com to see how accurate your own profile is.
There should be no doubt that your Google advertising profile has vastly more specific and invasive data than what's listed here, so consider this the tip of the privacy intrusion iceberg. You should also assume other major tech companies such as Meta and Amazon have followed Google's example and developed similarly detailed profiles based on your activity. The more sophisticated and accurate a user's profile, the easier it will be to convince that user to purchase a product or make any other real-world decision.
Is there anything you can do to avoid this personalized tracking? Not really, short of deactivating all your accounts on Google services and not using those services (including Android phones, Android TV, Nest cameras, Google Home, etc.) again in the future. After all, Google isn't going to let you use their services for free — they'll only allow it if you willingly trade this personalized data for access. You can turn off personalized ads in My Ad Center and limit ads about sensitive topics, but that just means you'll see more generic ads. It doesn't mean Google will stop collecting or monetizing your data.
At the very least, reviewing Google's digital profiling dashboard should make you reconsider how much privacy you actually have online. Hopefully it gives you a moment of pause before the next time you type sensitive keywords into that search bar, email, or even text message. It might also cause you to think twice about filling your home with IoT smart devices that are always gathering data to add to your profile.