The big relief comes when I note Google isn’t tracking the Internet searches I’ve made on my work account. Repeating this exercise for my personal Google account is less relaxing. There are several bits of extra info here. The most innocuous is a heavily neglected Google+ profile with a few hundred connections, but almost no posts.
Slightly more embarrassing is a seemingly connected YouTube account, apparently set up at a time when I thought using character names from role-playing games was a good account-naming policy. It has only one surviving video — a student interview with Heather Brooke — but does link to my viewing history, which includes the Tottenham riots, Dire Straits, Pomplamoose and, bafflingly, a Q&A from the Ryan commission into child abuse in Ireland.
News was “youtube user figures,” showing I am meticulous in my research. Mortifyingly, my last blogs search was a vanity one: “james ball.” Google also holds information on my login IPs, and other anonymized non-logged-in data, but doesn’t (yet) make this available.
There was some relief from the gloom though. Google insists the tracking for its display advertisements — it is the market leader in online advertising — doesn’t draw from user data, but comes instead from cookies, files that anonymously monitor the sites you visit. Google’s ad preference page believes I am interested in online video, TV reality shows, printers, Egypt, politics and England. From this, it has concluded I am likely to be over 65 and male. I find myself more reassured than offended that Google has got this more or less wrong.
Facebook is a much trickier prospect. Unlike Google, Facebook processes some data in the EU, through its Irish branch, making it subject to access laws. These take up to three months due to a large volume of requests from campaigners, so I once again resorted to the site’s own tools.
Facebook’s main download tool was familiar. A downloaded archive that opens into something looking oddly like a stripped-down, uncluttered Facebook, this lists all my friends, every post ever made on my wall, my private messages and photos.
The Facebook extended archive is a little creepier. Every event to which I’ve ever been invited is neatly listed, alongside its location, time and whether I said I would attend.
One piece of information — a supposed engagement to a schoolfriend, Amy Holmes — stands out. A Facebook “joke” that seemed faintly funny for about a week several years ago was undone by hiding it from any and all Facebook users, friends or otherwise (to avoid an “... is now single!” status update). The forgotten relationship helpfully explains why Facebook has served me up with bridalwear advertisements for several years and reassures me that Facebook doesn’t know quite everything.
Or does it? There are gaping holes in what Facebook has made available to me. No posts from other users in which I’m mentioned are included, not even from my friends. None of the 300+ photographs in which I feature, uploaded by friends and family, are there.
Campaigners estimate that only about 29 percent of the information Facebook possesses on any given user is accessible through the site’s tools.
The tour through a decent swath of my personal data is at once disturbing and comforting. Disturbing because it reminds me mine is a life lived online. Among the huge tranche of information available to Google and Facebook alone is virtually everyone I know, a huge amount of what I’ve said to (and about) them, and a vast amount of data on where I’ve been. Such detailed tracking would have been an impossibility even 10 years ago, and we’re largely clueless as to its effects.