Google’s Gotcha

15 ways Google monitors you.

An ad for Google's Gmail.
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[The Top 10 Google Image Searches of 2012.]

Google+. If you use Google+, you are voluntarily telling Google a great deal about your personal life, including, at times, current and intimate details. Yes, the same is true with Facebook, but when it comes to dossiers, Facebook is a toddler at play compared with Google.

Chrome. This is Google's browser, introduced in 2008 to compete with Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefoxand other browsers. Why did Google bother to introduce yet another free browser into a somewhat crowded market? Because with Chrome, Google can track every website you visit directly – that is, without first passing through its search engine. The search engine on its own left a significant gap in the company's knowledge about you; it only revealed areas in which you needed more information. Chrome allows Google to track your activities in areas of your life that are so well established that you don't need to research them – the regular contact you have with your bank or employer, for example. Google might never have been able to track those kinds of activities without the help of Chrome.

Even in so-called "incognito" mode, Google has programmed ways to track you. If, for example, you use Chrome to put a link to one of your favorite websites on your desktop, when you click directly on that link, the window that opens is not in incognito mode. Gotcha.

Firefox. What? How can Google track you when you're using a competing browser maintained by a non-profit organization? It can do so because before Firefox takes you to your destination, it first checks to see whether that website is on Google's blacklist, an ever-changing list of about 600,000 websites that Google's bots have identified – sometimes mistakenly – as dangerous. No government agency or industry association ever gave Google the authority to maintain such a list, but it exists, and Firefox uses it. Thus, Google is alerted when you visit websites through Firefox. Even more disturbing is the fact that Mozilla, the organization that maintains Firefox, receives 85 percent of its $163 million in annual income from… that's right, Google. In return, Firefox makes Google its default search engine.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Chinese hacking.]

Safari. In 2012, Google was fined $22.5 million by the Federal Trade Commission for illegally tracking users of Apple's iPhone, iPad and Macintosh computers by essentially hacking Apple's Safari browser. The big fine solved the problem, right? Not at all, because Safari, like Firefox and other browsers, uses Google's blacklist to check the safety of websites.

Android. And why did Google develop its own mobile operating system, in this instance competing primarily with operating systems developed by Research in Motion (for Palm devices) and Apple (for the iPhone)? Because operating systems are even more deeply embedded into computing devices than browsers. Everything you type, touch, and swipe runs through the operating system, which gives Google full access to your digital activities. When you're online, Android can upload whatever Google tells it to, and when you're offline (which, these days, is hardly ever for mobile devices), Android can store whatever Google tells it to store for later uploading.

YouTube. Google, Inc. bought YouTube in 2006 for $1.65 billion, almost certainly because YouTube unveiled yet another set of insights into consumer preferences. When you spend hours on YouTube skipping from right-wing manifestos to horror movie trailers to Lady Ga Ga videos, Google's gotcha.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should There Be an International Treaty on Cyberwarfare?]

Google Analytics. More than half the world's most popular websites use Google Analytics to collect data about who is visiting their pages. Visitors have no idea that Google Analytics is even present, but Google is tracking every one of them. To put this another way, if you visit, well, most any website – that's right, Google's gotcha.