Google’s Gotcha

15 ways Google monitors you.

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Google AdSense. In an attempt to monetize their web pages, millions of website owners now sprinkle small ads provided by Google throughout their legitimate content. The ads are, in theory (but often not in practice), related to whatever news story, food recipe or celebrity bio you're reading, making it somewhat likely that you will eventually click on one of them. Okay, I know what you're thinking: When you click on one of those ads, Google's gotcha, right? Not so. Google's gotcha the moment you load a page containing an AdSense ad. When you click on an ad, the company just gets more detailed info.

Google AdWords. As if those little ads weren't enough, Google also now allows website owners to embed targeted Google ads into words scattered throughout their textual content. When you load a page that contains any of those words, Google's gotcha, and when you click on any of those words, Google's got more.

Widgets. They're everywhere and multiplying like tribbles: tiny icons that allow you to notify your friends on Facebook or your colleagues on LinkedIn that the web page you're on is worth visiting. When you click on the G+ widget… that's right.

Google Street View. Google vehicles have now traveled millions of miles in 48 countries to take pictures of homes and businesses – visual information that's easy to cross-reference with the dossiers of home and business owners.

[See Photos: Make Way for Google's Driverless Car.]

For a long time, though, the real treasure trove for Google was not in the photos but in the information its Street View teams were skimming from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks: passwords, emails, browsing histories, financial information and more. After the Federal Communications Commission discovered in 2010 that Google had been collecting information this way for at least three years in more than 30 countries, it secured a promise from company officials to discontinue the practice and fined Google $25,000 (yes, that's all) for impeding its investigation. More recently, the attorneys general of 38 states settled a lawsuit against Google for its Street View snooping for $7 million.

Google Maps. They're embedded on about a million websites. And when Google is present on a web page, it can track people who visit that page.

Google Glass. Due out in time for Christmas 2013, this is a mobile computer mounted on the frames of eyeglasses which will follow your verbal commands and help you make sense of what you see by, say, displaying reviews of a restaurant that's within your field of vision. In other words, Glass will give Google access to what you say, what others around you are saying, and what you see.

As for the future, think science fiction. The company's recent ingestion of the startup company Behavio will soon give it the power to track your location 24 hours a day, as well as to predict where you will be and who will meet you there – hours, days, or even weeks into the future. And then there are those little DNA projects: Google's recent takeover of key search and storage operations for the Sequence Read Archive, a massive public repository of DNA data, as well as its funding of at least two Silicon Valley companies that provide DNA mapping services for consumers. When DNA profiles become part of people's dossiers, Google will have crossed a potentially frightening threshold: it will know far more about people than they know themselves – what diseases people are likely to get (think of the marketing opportunities), what their racial origins are, which dads have been cuckolded. The possibilities are endlessly outrageous.

If you think I'm overstating Google's intrusions or misrepresenting Google's motives, think again about the revenue model. Virtually all of Google's income is from targeted advertising. Every major company expenditure, therefore (think YouTube), almost certainly has to feed the beast. In the consulting work I've done from time to time, I've more than once had the breathtaking experience of sitting in on high-level planning sessions. Revenue concerns come first. Top executives don't sit around saying, "Golly, what's the next cool product we can develop." Instead, in Google-land, the conversation is probably more like: "We now know A, B, and C about people. How can we find out about D?" A question like that would prompt answers such as: "Simple – let's buy YouTube" or "No problem – let's develop a browser" or "Let's call in the product people and see what they've got that can help us."