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Tech & Science

What You Need To Know About Your Google Shadow Profile

Lifehacker Australia logo Lifehacker Australia 14/03/2019 Anthony Caruana

a person posing for the camera: Image: Getty Images/Google Image: Getty Images/Google It's no secret that Google tracks almost everything we do online for the purpose of targeted advertising. What you might not realise is that some of this information is allegedly stored in a secret 'shadow profile' that users can't see or access. 

Disturbingly, this includes highly intimate details about your identity and personal interests. We explain what you can do about it.

Over the last year or so, the ACCC has been conducting an inquiry into digital platforms. The commission is looking at the effect that digital search engines, social media platforms and other digital content aggregation platforms have on competition in media and advertising services markets with a focus on the impact of digital platforms on the supply of news and journalistic content.

Submissions to the inquiry and the ACCC's preliminary report are in and Oracle has fired some massive shots across Google's bow about how the search giant collects and uses data.

Oracle's submission to the ACCC's preliminary report paints a target on Google and proceeds to fire a number of shots into the heart of Google's activities and how they, allegedly, collect personal information and use it in ways that are not made clear to users.

For example, they point to how "Google combines information to infer other personal information that the consumer did not intend to provide". And because Google is able to act in an "unconstrained manner" they are able to do this with little oversight and no effective regulations to penalise them if they misuse data.

The ACCC's preliminary report "identifies concerns with the ability and incentive of key digital platforms to favour their own business interests, through their market power and presence across multiple markets".

And this is one of the big challenges that regulators like the ACCC and its international equivalents face. With Google able to operate in many markets and establish offices where the legal regime favours their activities it is hard to regulate it and to effectively punish it if it breaches laws, such as the Australian Consumer Law and the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (Privacy Act) as Oracle alleges.

A big part of Oracle's argument hinges on what they call "Google's Shadow Profile".

What is Google's Shadow Profile"?

Anyone who has used a Google service has provided the search and advertising giant with some data. All the data that Google has collected about you is held in what Oracle calls a "super profile". The shadow profile is a subset of all that data that you can't see or access.

It's worth noting that Australian Privacy Principle 1 (the full list of Australian Privacy Principles is here) states that companies subject to the Privacy Act should be clear abut what data is being held and its purpose. Furthermore, other principles in the list specify that we should be a able to remain anonymous and that data is only collected with consent.

The problem with the principles is that they don't refer to how data can be aggregated to infer new information.

For example, if Google maintains location information and search history about medications you've researched, they could easily infer that you have a specific health condition. That's data you didn't disclose, probably had no desire to expose to Google and that Google could use.

So, while you may have consented to providing Google with some data, you might not have consented to them using other data sources to create a more detailed picture of you than you thought possible.

Oracle's submission levels some serious allegations about Google's behaviour. For example:

1. Google’s privacy policy implies, in the final paragraph, that location information will only be collected if your location setting is turned on. This is not correct. Google’s privacy policy does not contain any reference to the fact that the Web & App Activity setting on an Android device tracks user location via internet protocol (IP) address and via other activities. An omission of information, particularly where it would be expected to be provided, may constitute misleading and deceptive conduct.

An attachment to the Oracle submission titled Google’s Shadow Profile: A Dossier of Consumers Online and Real World Life paints a damning picture of Google's activities and how it uses data that is "collected through an extensive web of Google services, which is difficult, if not impossible to avoid".

Google Knows More About Us Than We Can imagine

It also notes that Google's "Takeout" feature only provides a fraction of the data Google actually holds about us. Oracle's analysis goes through what data is collected by Google and what isn't part of the "Takeout" function.

Google represents a massive vertical integration of services. They have communications through email, chat and video products, entertainment with YouTube, health data via devices connected to Android phones and massive swathes of location and movement information through geotagging of images, Maps and cellular data access.

So, it's not surprising that some politicians are calling for a breakup of Google and other tech companies in order to break up their market power. The EU has discussed such a breakup but that discussion never led to anything.

How Can You Avoid Google's Power?

Google does face competition on many fronts. But that competition is relatively weak. For example, Vimeo is a great platform but it's nowhere near as widely used as YouTube. And Gmail faces a massive number of competitors.

But when you combine all of Google's services, they have an overwhelming array of products, all of which collect data that it can use to target ads and services.

Avoiding Google is hard but not impossible. The trouble is, it's hard to find a person who has used the Internet and hasn't used a Google service. But you can start by simply not using Google as your default search engine. I'm using DuckDuckGo.com now and while there was an adjustment period it passes the "good enough' test for me.

Instead of Google Maps you can try Waze, which works pretty well in my experience and provides extra information such as traffic camera locations and warnings if you're over the speed limit.

With email, you can look at alternative providers such as outlook.com or FastMail. Or you could invest in a NAS or mail server and roll your own if you're a little more technically inclined. That way, you can use your own domain rather than one of the established players.

But all those things require effort and a change of established habits - something Google, and indeed Facebook and myriad other large companies - depend on. The sheer effort of making a change is one of the tools Google relies on.

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