How much does Google know about me (and you)?

Dylan Scott, our Sr. Creative Technologist, shares his personal experience of uncovering his own Google data and what he found.

While recently scrolling through Reddit, I stumbled upon a post where a user outlined a large data dump they had received from Google. Correction, it wasn’t just data, it was their data. Naturally this made me curious, since I’ve been using Google products and services for more than a decade.

First, let me fill you in on my journey with Google. I was an early adopter of Gmail, back when you had to sign up to try it out and wait months for an invitation. What can I say, the allure of 2GB of free data was too enticing to pass up. Ever since that day, where I left my previous Hotmail life behind, I’ve been faithfully with Gmail.

Signing up with Gmail was only the beginning. Since then, I’ve purchased four Android phones, two Google Home devices, storage on Google Drive and two Wear OS watches. I’ve used Google Maps obsessively, worn the Google Pixel Buds and even wrote a rough draft of this article in Google Docs.

With my Reddit post discovery and involvement with Google collectively igniting my interest, I decided to go for it and pull all my data from Google.

The Process

My first of many surprises in this journey was realizing just how easy it was to collect my data and how effortless the whole experience was.

To request your data, you simply:

  1. Go to https://takeout.google.com/.
  2. Log in with your account.
  3. Choose how you’d like to receive your data.
  4. Wait to receive your data.
  5. That’s it!

I went through this seamless process twice — once with my work account and once more with my personal account. The work account took the least amount of time (two days) and the size amounted to around 12GB. The personal account, on the other hand, took nearly a week and was 61.5GB. Note: that’s roughly 30 times the size of the free storage that baited me in the first place.

What I Found

While I was waiting for my data to be delivered, I was offered a suite of tools to browse an overview of the information that Google was compiling. This is where I first started to get a sense of how all-encompassing my data collection was.

Initially, I was shown a handy outline of all of my activity in real time.

From there, I delved into the google maps data overview tool, which revealed…

A map of everywhere I’ve been in the last six years.

Every AirBnB I’ve stayed at.

Every restaurant I’ve eaten at.

Every single building I’ve ever entered, complete with a date and timestamp.

At this point, I started to get a little nervous. Within my initial moments of diving into my data, I realized that Google knows more about me than my parents, siblings and partner (combined).

“It’s okay,” I thought to myself, “This is just maps data. That doesn’t divulge too much information about me.” Oh how naive I was…

Next, I dug into my Google Assistant data tool:

This list included everything I’ve said to my Google Home, Pixel Buds, Google Assistant and phone. Each command was also accompanied by a handy audio file of me actually saying the request. It was extremely thorough, to say the least. This is when I started to really think about the intimate details I shared with Google on a daily basis and what it knew about me.

Google knew I had fallen asleep on the couch.

Google knew I had an argument with my girlfriend.

Google knew I liked to party in the USA!

At this point, for my sanity, I had to stop digging into the overview tools. I decided to patiently wait for the complete file dump from Google. Ignorance is bliss after all, right?

After several days, I received the 61.5GB batch of archive files. This is a quick overview of what was included:

Folders and folders of every purchase I’d made with Google Pay, every photo I’d taken, every email I’d sent or received, every webpage I’d visited in Chrome, everything I’d watched on YouTube and everything I’d searched on Google.

Within these folders, I found not only the data and files themselves, but also metadata files, which were formatted in JSON for easy indexing, sorting and searching.

Example of the metadata files attached to every picture, which includes exact time and location.

Conclusion

When I set out to research and write this article, I didn’t know what I’d find. What I realized is that we are all constantly shedding data, like DNA in the real world. If you had told me that signing up for that free email would ultimately cost me some privacy, I wouldn’t have believed you. What is truly compelling is how natural and necessary all of this has become. We’ve all opted into this ecosystem because we had to and with the steps being gradual, we’ve barely noticed the magnitude of what has happened.

What’s important to keep in mind is that your data is only a measure of output from you. It doesn’t take the input of data you are constantly experiencing into account. Things like news, texts, pictures and videos are all data inputs that change the output of data you are leaving behind. It’s possible to interpret details about one’s life, like thought patterns and behaviours, through this data and potentially start to cultivate new behaviours by changing what the data input is.

Ultimately, I encourage you to take the leap and explore your own data! Uncover the information that has been compiled about you and think about what that data could be telling the world.

If you dare, here are the links to get started:

https://takeout.google.com

https://myactivity.google.com

Happy hunting.

Thinkingbox is a global creative collective shaping the future of brands through craft and curiosity.