How does Google track me even when I'm not using it?

Filed under DuckDuckGo Q&A

Google can (and does) track your activity across many non-Google websites and apps. That may be surprising, even if you already know that when you use Google products like Google Search, Chrome, and YouTube, they collect a shocking amount of personal information about you.

Google trackers are lurking behind most websites.

Google Analytics — a free Google service used by millions of websites and apps — is actually the biggest cross-site tracker on the Internet, lurking creepily behind the scenes on around 72.6% of the top 75k sites. While “analytics” sounds harmless and is in fact something websites need to improve their services, what’s happening underneath the hood with Google Analytics is anything but harmless or necessary.

Unlike privacy-focused analytics services, Google uses their Google Analytics tracker for more than just providing information about site visitors and app users to the sites and apps themselves. In many cases Google also adds that same information to Google’s own massive profiles about people. Since Google Analytics is embedded in so many sites, this tracker alone allows Google to see most people’s global browsing history, regardless of whether they use any Google products themselves.

The second biggest cross-site tracker is also Google’s: aptly named “Global Site Tag” and on around 60% of the top 10K websites. Most of the ads you see online on non-Google websites are actually still coming from Google, and this tracker helps track them. Google uses personal data from Google Analytics, Global Site Tag, and from their many other trackers and products, so they can target you with advertising and content they think you’ll want to see. While 72.6% of the top 75k sites contain Google Analytics, if you look at the full portfolio of Google trackers across those sites, 86.5% contain one or more of them.

86.5% of the top 75k websites contain Google trackers; 34.2% contain Facebook trackers.

Why should you care?

Most people want to avoid those creepy Google ads that follow you around everywhere online. Google lets advertisers target people based on their Google search history, browsing history, location history, and other personal information collected through Google’s many trackers.

In addition, all of this data also enables industries like airlines to charge users different prices based upon their personal information (through yet another Google product). Yes, you could be charged more for your next vacation as a result of the data collected about you!

This data also can be used beyond just ads. It has led to innocent bystanders being suspected of crimes they didn’t commit and can even influence your ability to apply for jobs, get a loan, or rent a home. It also is used to fuel filter bubbles online by using your data in algorithms to suggest content (e.g., links, videos, articles, etc.) Google *thinks* you’ll want to engage with.

An example is YouTube’s recommended videos where many, including kids, have been recommended unsafe content based on filter bubble algorithms. This happens on Google Search too, where people are served different results based on Google’s profile of them. This type of filter bubble is especially pernicious when searching for political topics because you are not getting unbiased results or seeing what everyone else is seeing (e.g., when researching potential candidates).

The implications of all this tracking are even more disturbing in aggregate, where this invasive targeting and manipulation can breed extremism and polarization on a societal level as well as influence voting patterns.

All this Google tracking is hiding in plain sight.

In public Google tells people a very different story. They try to convince you that they care about privacy and are protecting your data, even as they continue to invade your privacy behind the scenes.

You’ve probably heard of Google Chrome’s “Incognito Mode”? By using “incognito” in the name, Google has led users to believe that this setting makes you anonymous online, but in reality, it only helps you offline. It just deletes the local copy of your search and browsing history (just the stuff stored on your computer), while doing nothing to curb websites, search engines (including Google), Internet service providers and others, from easily tracking you across the web.

In Google’s Incognito Mode, none of Google’s trackers are blocked. This is just one example of Google’s false privacy narrative — a narrative that in this case has led to a class-action lawsuit against Google that was recently given the go-ahead in court.

Google continues to make pledges to protect people’s privacy yet routinely resists disclosing what’s really going on. Every time Google has been forced to pull back the curtain and explain what they’re really doing, the truth about how much data they collect vs. what they actually need to collect is shocking.

Most recently Google embedded a new tracking method called FLoC in Chrome and started turning it on by default without any explicit opt-in consent from users. Google seems to know that if they were to give people an honest and easy-to-understand explanation of what they are doing with their data followed by a choice of whether to opt-in or not, hardly anyone would opt-in to it.

In these instances and more, the big G is pushing a false sense of privacy to protect their business model — we call that “privacy washing”. This lack of transparency is an injustice to you, and every consumer. Remember what happened when the big bad wolf dressed in grandma’s clothing? When danger is cloaked in a friendly, familiar disguise, it’s easy to get sucked in (just like poor Little Red).

Take back your privacy!

DuckDuckGo tweet about privacywashi

The good news is that you can take back your privacy with DuckDuckGo. If you’re unfamiliar with DuckDuckGo, we’re an independent Google alternative for anyone who’s tired of being tracked online and wants an easy solution. Our free browser comes with seamless privacy protection built-in, including tracker blocking, increased encryption, email protection, and more, making it the most comprehensive privacy protection you can get with one download. (Plus, subscribers to our Privacy Pro subscription service get three additional protections: a fast and simple VPN, a Personal Information Removal service, and an Identity Theft Restoration service.) Try DuckDuckGo on Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android.

Every day millions of people rely on that free all-in-one solution (browser, private search engine, tracker blocker, and more) to stay private online. They no longer get those creepy Google ads that follow them around online. Our business model is non-creepy contextual ads, based just on your search results, and having nothing to do with you as an individual.

When people use our browsers and extensions, our tools protect their online activity by keeping their search history private and blocking the most nefarious hidden web trackers in our extensive tracker dataset. DuckDuckGo puts the power to be private back in the hands of people, not companies that are desperate to watch everything you do online. It’s privacy, simplified – the same Internet, just with more privacy.

The DuckDuckGo browser is available for iPhone, Android,  Windows, and Mac – give it a try today.

Note: This blog post has been edited since initial publication to stay up to date with our evolving product offerings.

How does Google track me even when I'm not using it?
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