July 23, 2019 | 71° F

DEANGELO: Google, Facebook save data after it's deleted

Opinions Column: All That Fits


In light of the Cambridge Analytica fiasco — where it was revealed that Facebook exposed the private data of 50 million people to a political consulting firm — many users have begun to question how easily their personal information can be exploited online. Trust in the social network dropped, and some have chosen to quit the platform altogether. But, what is particularly striking about the scandal is that it proved in the business of making money, if the product is free, you are the product. 

Reports soon emerged about the surprising amount of data Facebook actually harbors. Every single message sent, posts and pages liked, pictures tagged, games played, birthdays wished and ads clicked are wrapped up in a mega-file. In the account settings tab, users have the option to request and download a copy. Beware, though, it is a lot to take in.

The newsfeed is not idle, it is recording. This notion is the reason why 5 minutes after you close an online shopping window, targeted ads for the very same item pop up. The algorithm tracks users to further customize and enhance their experiences, no matter how unsettling that sounds. Though, is this database practice common across the board?

In most cases, yes. Facebook is not the only tech giant that has access to your data. In fact, it may not even be the biggest. 

Google has grown to interweave its vines across our virtual lives and likely play a larger role than social media. Admittedly, I myself use Chrome as a preferred browser, have multiple Gmail accounts, store class notes in Drive and make use of a ton of its applications. Because of this, I have begun to wonder how akin the engine is to Facebook, and if it collects information similarly.

And like algorithmic magic, I came across a lengthy twitter thread started by Dylan Curran, a web developer from Ireland, that shows the extent of information Google stores. From personalized ad profiles to virtually transcribing every click, the amount of meticulous and catered detail is frightening. 

Scratching the surface, Curran showed that Google stores a timeline of your location every time you turn on your phone. It marks not only the exact place, but the time of day and duration it took to get from the previous destination in a neat bar graph. Plus, that browser history you thought you deleted? He explains Google still stores your search history, on all devices, in its own separate database. Even if you go through the effort to clear searches on a phone or laptop, the engine still keeps them until you delete everything in what is called My Activity. (Do not think using incognito mode protects you, either.)

And let us not forget, Google owns YouTube. So, every video you searched for and watched is time stamped and dated as well. If you have a g-mail account, which every student and faculty member at Rutgers University does, catalogs of all emails sent, received, deleted and even spammed are archived among the thousands of files. 

But, it does not stop there. As if the pinpoint mapping and thought tracking were not enough, the company creates an in-depth profile with categories based on your location, gender, age, interests, career, income, relationship status and even estimated weight. Generated by the pop-ups you click, the words you type and where you interact, this tabulation is then used to market what Google presumes to be “of interest” to you. Think of it as a scribe that writes down literally everything you do. 

All of this, much like Facebook, is accessible by users. Naturally, I requested to retrieve my file and received around three gigabytes worth. That is equivalent to approximately 1.6 million word documents. I began to fish through and found videos I watched seven years ago, unread bookmarks from 2011 and a restaurant’s location in which I myself cannot remember going to. 

But, unlike Facebook, Google has not yet been infringed. The company is transparent in their actions and reassures it does not reveal your identity when selling this information. So why, besides the dystopian obvious, is it a big deal? Curran argues the real dangers of these data storehouses are the nefarious variations of uses that can violate human rights. 

“... You're not a terrorist? Then how come you were googling ISIS?” he said, according to Vetr. “Manage to gain access to someone's Google account? Perfect, you have a chronological diary of everything that person has done for the last ten years.”

Those who think user data privacy exists are sadly mistaken. Billionaire tech companies like Facebook and Google offer an open experience, so their revenues come from selling this information to advertisers. You, the user, provide it by simply logging on. There is much to fear and little to control, leaving my only offerable uptake to be a Twitter user’s sense of awareness. 

So like always, think twice and be careful what you search for. 

Julia Deangelo is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies. Her column, "All That Fits," runs on alternate Thursdays. 


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Julia Deangelo

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