Cover Story

Seize control over your privacy from Google

By: Charles Lotara

Privacy has been, and is still a growing concern posed by technology giants, and Google has been on the spotlight of meddling with user’s private data despite claims to ‘protect’ those data. This first edition of tech-focused column examines critical information collected by Google, and how users can revoke access and take full charge over their privacy.

Google is an American company and the world biggest search engine owned by Alphabet with Sundar Pichai as its Chief Executive Officer (CEO). If a recent report by SEO Tribunal is anything to go by, Google enjoys a remarkable 90.6% of the search engine market worldwide.

The company receives over 63,000 searchers per second on daily basis. This is an average figure of how many people use Google a day, which figuratively translates into at least 2 trillion searches per year, 3.8 million searches per minute, 228 million searches per hour, and 5.6 billion searches per day.

So, why are these statistics important? Despite having a relatively low internet penetration percentage, these global statistics on Google usage encompass South Sudanese internet savvies, who are most probably signing up for Google services without a prior knowledge of how much control they would have over the data submitted.

For one to fully be granted access to Google services, a signup process must be completed through the creation of an account. During this process, it is demanded that the user submit personal information that includes a username and password.

But they don’t stop there, critical details such as marital status, age, phone number, and bank details are demanded during this process. Of course it’s also at this moment when Gmail newbies are tricked to opt in for mailing services quite unclear to them.

“The information we collect includes unique identifiers, browser type and settings, operating system, mobile network information including carrier name and phone number, and application version number,” Google says in its official privacy page.

As the above is not enough, the search engine giant says the “also collect information about the interaction of your apps, browsers and devices with our services, including IP address, crash reports, system activity, and the date, time, and referrer URL of your request.” To put it more bluntly, we are owned by Google for as long as we use their services.

If we were only owned, it wouldn’t be of a big deal, however. Flunked by teams of senior developers, Google commodifies data they collect from users, these include both private and basic information the company collects.

And don’t take my word for it. A New York Times investigation in December 2018 revealed that popular apps like WeatherBug and GasBuddy track users’ location with incredible details and either send or sell them to advertisers and retailers, and that Google’s Android operating system has more apps that closely track user’s location than any other OS.

Remember, most of the above mentioned phenomena occur when user signed into a Google or Gmail account where the Alphabet-funded company then capitalizes on the browsing history to create effective ads.

When surfing the internet, every browser leaves history or records of every information searched, and Google takes advantage of this opportunity. There’s an option within almost every browser to clear search history.

Searched data go beyond the history section however, and here is how you can permanently delete every searched information you don’t want known by or stored on Google from within Google itself.

For the sake of this article, I assume you’re using Google Chrome, a famous internet browser used by many people across South Sudan and the world at large. If you use a different browser to access Google products, don’t worry, this simple step works for you too.

Here’s the simple trick. From your electronic device, visit myactivity.google.com using any browser, this will open a panel of options. At the top left corner, there are toggle bars. Simply click or toggle on these tool bars and click ‘delete by’ option, and finally select and click ‘all time’. This will delete your entire browsing history.

That was it with search history. But how do you also claim privacy sovereignty over your Gmail account which uses a platform without an end-to-end (E2E) encryption feature as in WhatsApp?

As the old adage goes, “if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product and your data are being aggregated, at the very least, and passed on to marketers.” Gmail, like any other Google products is ‘free’ for anyone who has access to internet connectivity.

A Gmail account gets compromised, as Google says, when a user opts into the mailing lists of third party applications.

If you can’t remember if you’ve given any third party apps permission, try out Google Security Checkup. This feature shows you which third party application(s) has or have access to your account, and establish a backup recovery option.

It’s also your responsibility as a user to reexamine your permissions to simply check which accounts have access to your Gmail without doing a full security checkup.

If that doesn’t solve the problems, tech experts recommend you use paid alternatives. CleanEmail for instance allows users to mass-unsubscribe from listservs and clean out their inbox without accessing personal data or storing information.

According to a privacy advocate and Chief Executive Officer of social network MeWe Mark Weinstein, an extreme option is to abandon Gmail for yet some paid, privacy-focused email platforms like ProtonMail, ZohoMail, and FastMail.

Privacy and security concerns have led to the extinction of one of Google’s most used apps Google Plus after the company revealed that a bug in the application allowed the profile information of 52.5 million users to be viewable by developers, even if their profiles were set to private. Google couldn’t help but has to let it go.

Through a few tweaks from within your browser and revoking access to third party applications to your Gmail account, you can now seize control of your privacy from Google. You are a user, not a product!

Charles Lotara is a blogger, digital researcher, and self-thought web developer who’s also passionate about both positive and negative developments happening within the technology. Feedback or comments? Reach him via charles@theinformant.co.zw or follow him on Twitter @charles_lotara.

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