Google’s Gotcha

15 ways Google monitors you.

An ad for Google's Gmail.
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Robert Epstein is Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (http://AIBRT.org) and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine. A Ph.D. of Harvard University, Dr. Epstein has published 15 books and more than 200 articles on artificial intelligence and other topics. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

An editor at a major news magazine (not U.S. News) told me recently that Google can monitor people only when they sign in to a Google platform – Gmail or Google+, for example. Not so, I replied. Google can and does monitor people – perhaps upwards of 90 percent of Internet users worldwide – whether they use a Google product or not, and most people have no idea they're being monitored.

To make my point, I pursued a hunch. I expanded the header of the last email the editor had sent me. The header you normally see contains just four fields: From, To, Date, and Subject. But most email systems allow you to see much more. When you expand a header, you see many lines of technical information, including the names of the various computer servers through which the email passed on its way to you.

Sure enough, the editor's email had been routed through a Google server. How and why this routing was put in place, I don't know, but it appears that all outgoing emails from the magazine's staff run through Google, a company that has been known to scan email content. If you've ever received targeted ads that seem related to recent emails you've sent, you were probably scanned. The company can hardly deny that it scans; Buzz, the failed social network Google launched in 2010, was built entirely around information in Gmail messages that revealed who was friends with whom.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Just how extensive are Google's tracking activities? When I started cataloging them, I was amazed. Here is a partial list of tracking methods Google is known to use. I'd wager that the list of tracking methods we don't know about is much longer.

The search engine. Every search you conduct using Google's ubiquitous search engine – for medical or mental health information, an update on your favorite mayoral candidate, the schedule of your church's potluck dinner, how to handle kids' tantrums, the cure for halitosis or the latest sex toys – allows the company to track your interests and, over time, build a detailed dossier that describes virtually every aspect of your character, food preferences, religious beliefs, medical problems, sexual inclinations, parenting challenges, political leanings and so on. In other words, when you use Google's search engine, Google's gotcha.

Even if the company doesn't know your name, it can still track your searches by reading codes, such as your IP address, that are unique to your computer or current location. Through cross-referencing, the company can eventually find your name, address, and telephone number, too. When you use the search engine or most any other Google product, Google also installs an identifier cookie on your computer that makes you easier to track. And get this: Google reads and stores every letter you type into its search bar as you are typing (think: m-a-r-i-j-u-a), so even if your good judgment suddenly kicks in and you don't hit "enter," the company still records what it thinks you were looking for.

Google uses your search history to send you personalized ads. That's how it survives, after all. About 97 percent of the company's revenues are from advertising. Google justifies this business model, which could be viewed as fundamentally deceptive, by insisting that it's providing a unique and valuable service: sending vendors your way who precisely fit your current needs and interests.

Email. When you use Gmail, Google's email service, the company scans the content of your emails and the email addresses of your correspondents. Google's Gmail system also scans your incoming emails, even the ones coming from Yahoo and Hotmail. If you feel safe because you've deleted emails you regretted sending, think again. Google never erases its own copies, even copies of the drafts you decided not to send – even copies of incomplete messages you didn't save as drafts. And then there are those Google servers, which route the emails of thousands of companies that apparently don't mind running the risk that their emails will be scanned. So whether you use Gmail itself, write to someone who uses Gmail, or, in many cases, simply email, Google's gotcha.