The other day I was scrolling through Facebook when I caught sight of an ad that seemed to know me... pretty well. Sandwiched between life updates and the occasional dog photo was a sponsored post of a pink sweatshirt, decorated with the photoshopped phrase, “Life took me to Massachusetts, but I’ll always be a Georgia girl” across it.
As somebody who moved from Atlanta to Boston over a year ago, that’s definitely one targeted ad. I took a screenshot and sent it to a friend, who immediately texted back, “That’s so creepy!!!”
It seemed a little creepy to me too. But, fair enough - I do have my hometown and current city listed on my Facebook page, so that information isn’t hard to find. And honestly, working in the digital marketing world, I understand the effectiveness of targeted ads that are done right. According to Wired, smart and transparent targeted ads will drive clicks and increase conversion rates, while ads that are viewed as “creepy” will actually steer consumers away from clicking. For example, ads that give recommendations based on the items you previously ordered do extremely well. Pink hoodies with badly photoshopped phrases about where you live may still make an impact, but it will likely be a bad one.
Still, the post did make me wonder exactly how much of my information is being tracked, so I investigated a little further. In Facebook’s settings, under the “Ad” tab, there’s an option to view the information you’re sharing with advertisers, as well as the type of ads that are being targeted to you. Here, Facebook gives you the option to hide these ads or opt out of sharing your information. Also located in the settings, “Your Facebook Information,” will give you insight into the data Facebook is supposedly keeping on you, with the option to opt out here as well. Message history, search history, location tracking and facial recognition are all some of the settings you can browse through and manage.
And Facebook is just the starting place. It’s no surprise that the real conglomerate of our personal data is Google. In the same week I saw that Facebook post, I also came across a Reddit thread that asked, “People who downloaded their Google data and went through it, what were the most unsettling things you found out they had stored on you?” I never even realized I could access the data that Google was collecting, but after seeing that post I immediately wanted to know more.
Google lists really simple directions to follow in order to download the data they’ve accumulated on you. All you need to do is log in with your Google account and provide an email address for the archived data to be sent to. Google warns that the data download could take hours or even days to complete, but mine only took 7 minutes.
So what was in my Google archive? Basically, the download consisted of Excel spreadsheets that outlined my entire internet use. Some of the data I expected, and then there were other parts of the archive that were either unsettling or totally random. The breakdown of my data included:
My browsing history
All Google and image searches made, marked with my location at the time of search
Every YouTube video I’ve looked for or watched
A list of every flight I’ve booked – detailed down to the terminal and gate number
Every ad I’ve clicked on or item I’ve purchased online since 2009
Every address I’ve searched for in Google maps
An accurate log of my location for the past few years, including my home address
Photos uploaded to Google Drive, including ones I thought were deleted
Voice recordings (this section was empty for me, but not for those that use Google’s voice to text function)
An Excel sheet dedicated solely to the address of a zoo I volunteered at once and never went back to
A blog post I wrote for a World History school project in the 10th grade
A pizza order that I placed on September 25, 2017 at 7:50PM
That’s a whole lot of information to keep track of. It’s eye-opening, and a bit scary, to understand just how many details Google knows about my life, especially when I don’t remember the details myself. After wading through the mass of information, I decided to take a visit to Google’s Activity Controls, where you can update the settings to control the information Google saves. Though by no means a save-all, it is definitely the starting point to establishing more data security.