One man willingly gave Google his data. See what happened next.

Google requires quid for its quo, but it offers something many don’t: user data access.

Despite some misgivings about the company’s product course and service permanence (I was an early and fanatical user of Google Wave), my relationship with Google is one of mutual symbiosis. Its “better mousetrap” approach to products and services, the width and breadth of online, mobile, and behind-the-scenes offerings saves me countless hours every week in exchange for a slice of my private life, laid bare before its algorithms and analyzed for marketing purposes.

I am writing this on a Chromebook by a lake, using Google Docs and images in Google Drive. I found my way here, through the thick underbrush along a long since forgotten former fishmonger’s trail, on Google Maps after Google Now offered me a glimpse of the place as one of the recommended local attractions.


The lake I found via Google Maps and a recommendation from Google Now.

Admittedly, having my documents, my photos, my to-do lists, contacts, and much more on Google, depending on it as a research tool and mail client, map provider and domain host, is scary. And as much as I understand my dependence on Google to carry the potential for problems, the fact remains that none of those dependencies, not one shred of data, and certainly not one iota of my private life, is known to the company without my explicit, active, consent.

Just a few weeks ago saw me, once again, doing the new gadget dance. After carefully opening the box and taking in that new phone smell, I went through the onboarding for three phones — Windows, iOS, and Android — for a project. Letting the fingers do the dance they so well know by now, I nevertheless stop every time to read the consent screens offered to me by Apple, Google, and others. “Would you like to receive an email every day reminding you to pay us more money?” — No. “Would you like to sign up for an amazing newsletter containing no news but lots of letters?” — No. “Google needs to periodically store your location to improve your search suggestions, route recommendations, and more” — Yes.

“You would never believe what Google secretly knows about you,” says the headline in my Facebook feed. Six of my friends have so far re-shared it, each of whom expresses their dismay about yet another breach of privacy, inevitably containing sentence fragments such as “in a post-Snowden world” and calling Google’s storage and visualization of a user’s location data “creepy.”

GoogleMapsScreenshotThis is where the narrative, one about privacy and underhanded dealings, splits from reality. Reality comes with consent screens like the one pictured to the right and a “Learn more” link. In reality the “creepy” part of this event isn’t Google’s visualization of consensually shared data on its Location History page, it’s the fact that the men and women whom I hold in high esteem as tech pundits and bloggers, apparently click consent screens without reading them. Given the publicity of Latitude on release and every subsequent rebranding and reshaping, and an average of 18 months between device onboarding for the average geek, it takes quite a willful ignorance to not be aware of this feature.

And a feature it is. For me and Google both. Google gets to know where I have been, allowing it to build the better mousetrap it needs to keep me entertained, engaged, and receptive to advertisement. Apparently this approach works: at $16 billion for the second quarter of this year, Google can’t complain about lack of sales.

I get tools and data for my own use as well. Unlike Facebook, OKCupid, Path, and others, Google even gives me a choice and access to my own data at any time. I can start or stop its collection, delete it in its entirety, and export it at any time.

The issue here isn’t with Google at all and, at the same time, one of Google’s making. By becoming ubiquitous and hard to avoid, offering powerful yet easy-to-use tools, Google becomes to many a proof-positive application of Clarke’s Third Law: indistinguishable from magic.

Not one shred of data, not one iota of my private life, is known to Google without my explicit consent.

And, like magic, lifting the curtain isn’t something many entertain. Clicking the “read more” link, finding links to Google’s Dashboard, Location History, and Takeout seems to have been a move so foreign even tech pundits never attempted it. Anyone finding their data on Google’s Location History page once consented to the terms of that transaction: Google gets data, user gets better search, better location services, and — in the form of that Location History Page — a fancy visualization and exportable data to boot.

Can Google be faulted for this? Yes, a little bit. Onboarding is one of those things we do more or less on auto pilot. Users assume that declining a consent screen will deprive them of features on their mobile devices. In the case of Google’s Location History that’s even true, free magic in exchange for a user’s life, laid bare before the dissecting data scalpels of the company’s algorithm factory.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. We are Google’s product, a packaged and well-received $16 billion cluster of humans, sharing our lives with a search engine. Strike Google, replace value and function, and the same could be said for any free service on the Internet, from magazine to search engine, social network to picture-sharing site. In all those cases, however, only Google offers as comprehensive a toolbox for those willing to sign the deal, data for utility.


My 2010 trip to Germany convinced me to move to the country. In 2013, I replayed the trip to revisit the places that led to this decision.

This makes Google inherently more attackable. The Location History visualizer provides exactly the kind of visceral link (“check out what Google is doing to your phone, you won’t believe what I found out they know about you”) to show the vastness of the company’s data storage; that’s tangible, rather than Facebook’s blanket “we never delete anything.” Hint to the next scare headline writer: Google doesn’t just do this for Location, either. Search history traces, if enabled and not deleted, back to the first search our logged-in selves performed on the site (my first recorded, incidentally, was a search for PHPs implode function on April 21, 2005). YouTube viewing history? My first video was (I am now properly ashamed) a funny cat one.

GoogleScreenshot2Google doesn’t forget. Unless asked to do so, which is more than can be expected from many of the other services out there. That dashboard link, so prominent on every help page linked from each of Google’s consent screens, contains tools to pause, resume, delete, or download our history.

Google’s quo, the collection of data about me to market to me and show me “relevant” ads on Gmail, YouTube, and Search, as well as the ever-growing number of sites running AdWords, begets my quid — better search, better recommendations for more funny cat videos, and an understanding that my search for “explode” might concern PHP, not beached whales.

If there is a click bait headline that should make it onto Facebook, it’s not this fake outrage about consensual data collection. It should be one about consent screens. Or, better, one about an amazing lifesaver you have to try out that takes your location history, runs it through a KML to GPX converter, and uses it to reverse geotag all those pictures your $2,000 DSLR didn’t because the $600 attachment GPS once again failed. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Open Google Location History and find the download link for the day in question. To add more data points click the “Show all points” link before downloading the KML file.
  2. Convert the file to GPX. Most reverse geocoders can not read KML, which means we’ll have to convert this file into GPX. Luckily there are a number of solutions, the easiest by far is using a Change the encoding direction in the dropdown, upload your KML file, download the converted GPX.
  3. Use a Geocoding application. Jeffrey Friedl’s “Geocode” plugin for Lightroom 5 (and possibly 4) does a good job at this, as does Lightroom 5’s built in mechanism. Personally I use Geotag, a free (open source) Java application which also allows me to correct false locations due to jitter before coding my photos.
  4. There is no step 4. Enjoy your freshly geocoded images courtesy of Google’s quo for your quid.
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  • prithasen

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  • swift11

    Replace “Google” with “NSA” and rewrite your article.

  • 6 one way half a dozen another

    “…that’s tangible, rather than Facebook’s blanket ‘we never delete anything.'”

    Absolutely correct. Google is currently not collecting your data for advertising purposes (just your Search history and keywords in your emails), which can actually be deleted whenever you choose unlike Facebook and it’s permanent NSA-like file on you.
    Sorry, but Google does not worry me like Facebook and its trap of “privacy” (and soon-to-be possible automatic post deletion – post gone, but not the info).

  • Good article but the headline is misleading. The point was that everyone willingly gives Google their data. This guy just knows good ways to use it.

  • John_PopeXIII

    What an incredibly clever, yet completely narrow-minded, view point – only possibly conceived of in the deafening echo chambers of Silicon Valley, and its associated media ‘thought leaders’.

    The conspiracy theory is officially official – Google’s PR team has branched out to the ‘most trusted’ reaches of the technology (read: magic) press.

    I’d absolutely love to debate you openly, and seriously, about the macro-view implications of your undoubtedly clever, quasi-uptoian picture you’ve just painted for all of us. Are you up for it?

    Your boss could host a similar sort of O’Reilly vs Battelle debate, moderated by Wired’s Chris Anderson, back in the day. You know, a back-and-forth, essay-style cyber debate based on, let’s say, three topics of choice on the same theme as your post – one of your choice, one of my choice, and one from your boss, the esteemed Tim O’Reilly.

    C’mon, what do you say, Jonas?

    I mean think about it, you’re in the cradle of gods, the center of it all, the nexus of what is possible and what isn’t, and most importantly, where all the ‘real’ magicians reside – your perspective couldn’t possibly be outshone or outclassed by a luddite, neophyte from some random, back-water place who couldn’t possibly understand all the subtle nuances and higher meanings of the technical Utopia you describe. You’ve got this one in control – it’ll be a cinch.

    Let’s do this. Let’s expand on this brilliant piece of journalistic integrity you’ve just opined – let’s have all the naysayers and non-believers of Google-heaven-on-earth finally be put in their place. Once, and, for, all.

    Or else, let’s face it, there’s no (0%) substance behind what you just said.

    After all, the web is a dialogue (multi-logue), not a monologue. Or should those who disagree just shut up, and understand their station within the technology intelligentsia hierarchy of things that matter?

    Your serve, Jonas…

    • Oh, you so hammered that one right into the net. I live in bamberg, Germany, population 74,000, not Silicon Valley, after years in Dallas, Texas, also not Silicon Valley. I work in Frankfurt which, yes, could be considered a modern city, unless you remember that this is the banking mecca and only 12% of all local shops have even switched to accepting plastic money.

      I am a trained chef, not coder, and haven’t been in “the cradle of gods” since last I visited in 2012, hated it, left days later feeling dirty and somewhat drained from having to listen to people yammer on about pivoting this or scrumming that. I work on a farm, a real, dirt and feed, moo and oink, farm.

      Am I up for a debate? Any day. Come to Frankfurt, London, or anywhere in between (as Pope I’d presume you reside in Rome, that can be arranged as well, I have my mandatory 12 days annual vacation coming) and we’ll do it.

      You see, Pope, that’s the problem: conjecture. You seem to do a lot of it. Presume my location, my employment status (hint: Tim O’Reilly is not my boss), and my willingness to debate you. When it comes to backwater I don’t know if I have you beat, you have a leg up on me, you could use that evil website Google to look me up, I can’t. But wherever Conjectureville lies, I am sure you aren’t as far away from a Best Buy or Fry’s as I am.

      You even conjectured my responses. I might just be a pig farmer but I know one thing: people who talk to themselves and think they’re having a conversation with someone else might not be all that sound of reasoning. So, yeah, sure, let’s debate. Let’s just make sure I am actually present and not just in your head.

      • John_PopeXIII

        Take a deep breath, Jonas, It’ll be ok.

        My sincerest apologies for not vetting, knowing (or caring about) the history of your nurturing, before I called you out for your hopelessly self-serving point of view. Was there anything else you’d like to share about your youth, travel history and occupation before we move on to more important things? I wouldn’t want you to leave anything out.

        You’re absolutely right, though – it was conjecture to assume you were even qualified to write such a distorted picture of reality – my bad. I think Daniel Patrick Moynihan said it best to describe your post, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” – my apologies for not including that in my first comment.

        I get it, you don’t recognise the actual implications of what you’re talking about – no big deal, as you say, you’re a simple oink guy.

        Now, with regards to identifying the perfect locale for our grey matter brawl – as if it makes a bit of difference???:

        Bamberg sounds boring, pass. Frankfurt, even more so – your banking-industry-plastic reference is actually the second least impressive thing I’ve heard you say. Impressive by the fact that it made less than no (0%) sense.

        Rome sounds nice, always nice to get back to my roots – wait a minute, I don’t live in Rome; isn’t that an example of the pot-head calling the conjecture black? Nobody likes a hypocrite, Jaron.

        And finally, I’m already in London, but that wouldn’t be fair to you, would it? You wouldn’t want to debate me in my home town, would you?

        But seeing as though you talk tough, perhaps you’re up for a tidy ass-kicking in Trafalgar Square? Or how about the London School of Economics? We could set up both venues, if you like?

        But I mean, if you’re that passionate about defending your manhood, and you need to do this face-to-face, mano-a-mano, then knock yourself out – get on a flight immediately. You could be here in less than five hours, I bet. Ask Google for directions from the airport – they know where I am.

        Go on, prove to the world, and the boss you wish you had, that you’re no self-serving Google fan-boy. Set the record straight.

        And once you make your decision, get back to me. Tell me how you’ll put me in my place.

        Or, better yet, we could just keep it simple and do it right here,
        anytime you’re ready in this comment thread? It would make for some engaging and entertaining social media content. You know, the objective you originally had by writing the distorted post.

        Perhaps Google Now might even recommend my suggestions, too? I hear it’s really intuitive.

        • Adolfo Martinez

          Successful troll is successful

          • John_PopeXIII

            The bell finally tolls…

            There it is – the inevitable “troll” card has finally been played. And the author didn’t even have to do it himself – quelle surprise.

            Here I was thinking that disagreeing with a digital media ‘thought leader’ was a “full contact sport” here at O’Reilly. Sorry, guess this is now the ‘non-contact’ league, then?

            What Paul Carr said about some of the ‘edgy’ freelance writers of the world is true; “those who live by the keyboard, die by the keyboard.”

            Adolfo, let’s be real here, if we can please?

            Yes, I vehemently disagreed with the premise of the author’s argument, and stated – granted, with little respect – that he has no idea, or a macro understanding, of the implications of the technical Utopia he was advocating. I still stand 100% convicted in that position. I believe Google is needlessly, and selfishly, having a tremendous negative impact on the world, because of the business model they originally chose to employ, and now has become mainstream.

            I’ve yet to speak to the substantive reasoning for my position with this distinguished, but disgruntled, writer, so I’ll briefly list them here for you:

            Google’s (supposedly ‘free’) business model and corporate strategies cost the global economy (society):

            – close to $10T annually – that’s trillion, with a ‘t’
            – approximately 75-100M new jobs around the world
            – increased income, wealth and regional inequality

            There are more negative economic externalities, but I’ll save them for future hands.

            This also isn’t even mentioning all of the legal, moral and ethical boundaries that result from the ‘corporate surveillance’ business model – a.k.a. “free” business model. I contest that the business model of “free” is a scam, a con and a hoax on all of our collective civil liberties – even yours, Adolfo, whether you recognise it, or not. The video link also describes and argues the case – albeit briefly.

            The business model of “free” is about to be made extinct – you know, dinosaur-like. And if Google doesn’t change most of its economic strategies dramatically, they will be extinct, too. You can quote me on that.

            But I’m guessing you, too, won’t believe that Google’s business model will have this large a negative impact – or ultimate knock-on effect – on the global economy like the scenario I describe above. If that’s the case, the offer to debate me is also graciously extended to you.

            Again, we can do it anytime anywhere (online) of your choosing – as long as it’s relevant. Let’s get this debate/argument on the record. You can be the one to defend Google’s honour.

            I was planning to publish the content on my own media property; but since they’re not available yet, I might as well strike the iron whilst it’s hot, and do it somewhere it’ll have the most impact.

            And, of course we’ll make this a purely professional, civil and serious event – no trolling, no personal attacks – just substance.

            What do you say? Would you like to defend Google?

            If not you, perhaps Larry or Sergey is available?

          • Adolfo Martinez

            Aaah that’s different, see, you actually tried to argue there.

            I’m not planning to defend Google. Indeed, I don’t think I’m informed enough to firmly take a posture on the debate. But two comments, full of nothing but bluffing and bashing, are not a good way to start a discussion.

            Statements like “there’s no (0%) substance behind what you just said.” and “no big deal, as you say, you’re a simple oink guy.” are what makes you a troll. Disagreeing is fine.

            You actually want to argue and discuss? Show some respect first, so everyone can take you seriously.

          • John_PopeXIII

            As you can see, I left charm school at an early age.

            Sure, I could have tempered my rhetoric, but I chose the words because they were authentic – no BS. The author came across as a condescending git in his article, so I returned the same favour and tone in my original comment. This article was very offensive to me, that is likely just one of the differences between you and I.

            His reply was also condescending, directed specifically at me, and some trivial, superfluous details. And where I come from, if you call somebody you don’t know by their surname, you better be ready to drop the gloves. Perhaps not a justification, nevertheless my motivation.

            It makes no difference to me if you take me seriously – that’s not my objective. I write because I have something to say, not because I want to say something.

            My objective is to communicate an idea – one that is not going to be popular with many in this audience; and I know that ahead of time – and be iconoclastic to another.

            I understand beforehand that many listening will not take me, or my ideas, seriously, because I’m condemning their worldview.

            But I’m not here to win a popularity contest – I’m here to discuss issues. Important issues. And if possible, rattle a few cages.

            I’m here to challenge the status quo. My style is not to send roses, just thorns to those I believe are threatening the well-being of others. That’s all.

            Change is messy. People’s toes inevitably will be stepped on, sadly that is the nature of any dialectic on important issues.

            Whilst we’re here, any thoughts on the issues that have been discussed?

  • Andrés Corral

    This is a well argued article, save for one detail: Google makes you think that you can delete the data they have about you but there’s no way to prove that they actually delete it instead of just hiding it from your Google history.
    Yet, Google are actually more open about the data they collect about you than any other website

  • Skinjob

    Not one shred of data, not one iota of my private life, is known to Google without my explicit consent.

    This may be true for you, but it is not true for me. I pay for an email service rather than use a free one. Every time I email someone with a gmail account, Google gets intimate information about me.

    This piece is just a little too jingoisitic and techno-utopic to be of value.

    • Frank

      I agree. Google has a lot of data on people without their consent. Think of the contact data saved in Gmail accounts giving your name, address, date of birth, phone numbers etc etc. Plus uploaded photos where others can switch on face recognition. Same problem with Facebook.

    • Dakota Moonshine

      jingoisitic? “Patriotism through aggressive foreign policy.” Are you applying ‘company’ as a ‘nation’?

  • PencilWitch

    This post is very disturbing. its ignorance around the issues of personal privacy is astonishing.
    Had to comment (and i never do) cause this is an example of obnoxious, irresponsible journalism. or blogging, or whatever you call it. It is PR spin, nothing more.
    Author is an apologist for a corporate monopoly. His reasoning and arguments are classic “straw man” tactics – i.e. “Google’s wrongdoings pale in comparison to Facebook’s.” Two wrongs don’t make a right, no matter the degree of wrongdoing – Facebook’s greater misdeeds don’t excuse or justify any of Google’s actions and policies.
    The author uses schoolboy logic to reach his faulty conclusions. other than that, it’s wonderful article.
    And i do agree with the detractors from previous comments, wholeheartedly. i think the proposed debate with Mr Pope would also be very entertaining – can you make that happen please? Not sure the author wants any more to do with the “Pope” which is a shame cause i think the author might have learned a thing or two.
    For any of you who would like to hear a dose of reality, please watch this excellent video – called “Free Is A Lie” (it’s the YouTube version, so the author/farmer will feel comfortable).

    Would also love to hear the author’s response to this video. My guess is he won’t tho. learning about an alternative to one’s world view can be quite shattering for the myopic.

    • Dakota Moonshine

      Ad hominem much?

  • frafri

    Great article,
    thanks for sharing.

  • Stephen Mohos

    Apparently the writer of this article did not hear about Google Analytics, which is embedded in many web sites and gathers data on you, or Google’s recent patent for listening in on phone calls for background noise to better determine where you are. Conspiracy theories aside, these days several businesses and governments admit to taking your personal information if it is not given to them. Of course, Google is just the company that is the most transparent about it.

    • Stephen Hamilton

      Google Analytics specifically prohibits use of personally identifiable information (PII).

      I think the authors main point was if you are going to make a choice to trade personal information for services with a corporation, Google are one of the better choices given they allow you to manage that data. However, the consent screens from all these companies pretty much suck, and they need to do better.

      I also think we (the people) need to do better at reading and understanding what we are consenting to.

      • John_PopeXIII

        The question that you rightly identified here:

        “…if you are going to make a choice to trade personal information for services with a corporation, Google are one of the better choices given they allow you to manage that data”

        is a false choice.

        First, there really isn’t a viable and differentiated alternative for the services in question.

        Second, the question should not be, what choice of company gets to use an individual’s personal data anyway they wish and profit from? The question is, why aren’t individuals collecting, controlling, leveraging and financially benefiting from THEIR OWN PERSONAL DATA. It is their data, after all – it obviously has plenty of value, or else nobody would want it. I’d argue it’s actually far more valuable to the individual, than it is to any of the infinite number of third party businesses that are all aggregating and trying to profit from people’s personal data. The answer is, the correct solution is not available, yet.

        Have a look at this 60 Minutes story on the topic – they’re also not exactly thrilled to bits that this is the digital industry norm, either.

        What we’re effectively saying by using Google’s products and services (and similar companies who employ the same model) is, “yes, I would like you to spy on me for your significant financial gain, and at the possible expense of my personal civil liberties and, of course, many tens of millions of people’s jobs and well-being.”

        Our response to that question is currently, “I don’t care about all that nonsense, just give me free email and maps and search and GOOGLE NOW – cause I love serendipity.”

        Frankly, if that’s the legacy that we as society and our generation choose to leave – and we don’t at least look for superior, more ethical, and more economically sustainable alternatives – then it really is a sad commentary on our culture. Although, I am betting that there are people out there who will make the right choices – when the right alternatives are offered.

        Google is no doubt clever, and they surely create products that improve people’s lives. But at what expense?

        If we were asked to (perhaps temporarily) give up the serendipity of Google Now – or Maps, GMail, Search, Drive, etc. – experience, if we knew that those actions would help stimulate the global economy and help put tens of millions of people back to work, and put an end to the problem of personal privacy online – would I sacrifice that innovation or luxury? Would you choose an alternative to Google?

        I know what I would do.

        • Stephen Hamilton

          “…the correct solution is not available, yet.”

          You may be right about that, so I suggest you limiting your rambling attacks on other people and preparing for pointless debates, and start working on creating a better solution to the problems you see in the current solution?

          • John_PopeXIII

            Solution’s on it’s way. As you might expect.

            Did I attack you? Or did I comment on one of your observations? Like you did, previously.

            The debate is part of the preparation and process, my friend. Understanding the opponent is 50% of the process – informing others is the other 50%.

            Sorry for verbosity, when presenting ideas that aren’t conventional pities, it requires a bit more nuance than 140 characters.

            Let me guess, Android?

          • Dakota Moonshine

            YAY! I love Aderol too!

          • John_PopeXIII

            Cool. But what are thoughts on Adderall?

            Or, how about illiteracy?

          • John_PopeXIII

            Yo Stephen,

            How did you enjoy the video I suggested for you? Hope it didn’t scare you too much – it kinda sucks finding out Santa Claus doesn’t exist, huh?

            Also, I neglected to respond to your “pointless debates” remark previously – I honestly tried to, but unfortunately can’t leave that ol’ chestnut alone. Too much ignorance to ignore.

            Frankly, if you honestly believe that a debate on the welfare of hundreds of millions of your fellow human beings is “pointless” – then you should probably take some time to reflect on your values. A vacation might also help.

            You shouldn’t let the fact that you think I’m an idiot cloud your judgement on the issue at hand. That’s not exactly using your pre-frontal cortex to its greatest extent.

            The reality is, there are few ‘debates’ in the ENTIRE world today that are more relevant or important to mankind than the debate we’re having right here – not that you’d ever hear that kind of statement in the tech community.

            And not to mention the other ‘hackneyed’ and ‘irrelevant’ fact that we’re actually talking about the coming changes to an Internet near you. And change there will be – you can count on it. BIG CHANGES.

            Believe that.