Saturday, January 30, 2021

I Am an Elephant: The Autobiography of a Google User

A Twitter account I follow (@notcapnamerica, and if you're on Twitter you should totally follow him, because he’s a wild ride) recently commented on the crazy amount of stuff Google claims to know about you in the “Ad Settings” portion of your account.

This is where I would embed or at least screenshot that tweet, except that I can’t for the life of me find it again. Twitter’s search function is, let’s charitably say, not robust. And Chris pumps out content at an insane pace. It’s not like I could scroll through his last few dozen tweets and find the one I was looking for; he’s tweeted, retweeted, and replied hundreds of times since then. Also, I’m not good at this stuff.

Actual photo of me attempting to type
the works of Shakespeare.


Turns out you can go to and see exactly who Google has composited you to be based on “personal info you've added to your Google Account, data from advertisers that partner with Google, and Google's estimation of your interests.” That composite snapshot is then used by Google to determine the content of all the 12,000 sidebars, pop-ups, and other “suggestions” you see every day in the course of your intertubes browsing (in Chrome by Google, of course - Chrome is the browser equivalent of Kool-Aid manufacturing its own drink cups with appropriate cyanide dosages pre-printed on them).

It’s an interesting way to build a personality profile, in much the same way that having six blind men grope an elephant is an interesting way to learn about elephants. 

With that in mind, let’s unpack Google’s methodology for gleaning my identity, at least the online version of it.

“Personal info you’ve added to your Google Account”: I just checked, and literally the only information I’ve added to my Google profile is my IRL name and two email addresses (my everyday Gmail and the email for this blog, which I use as a backup contact). I haven’t told Google my gender, my birthday, my employer, my hometown, or whether I prefer bechamel or marinara in my lasagne. On this score, they’re flying blind. Of course, there are myriad other ways Google could access that information about me - see below.

“Data from advertisers that partner with Google”: This is a huge catch-all category. Google captures an enormous amount of information about us when we’re online. I’m totally complicit in some of it: You know how your contact info conveniently pops up when you’re buying something from a website, even if you’re not logged into an account for that website? Google has all that. Or the nifty way you only have to enter the CVV for your credit card, and all the payment fields populate? Google knows where you’re spending your money. I have ample opportunity to opt out of storing that information, but I’m as lazy and trusting as the average schmuck, and I. Just. Don’t.

Then there are the passive channels by which Google extracts personal information from my browsing habits. Some of these are quite mysterious. I mean, I get that if I buy a pair of shoes from Zulily, I’m going to be seeing shoe ads on MSN for the next few days (currently estimated at anywhere from two to 61, 734). I can grasp that if I place an Office Depot order on my work computer while I’m logged into Google (which I typically am), I’m going to see ads for Office Depot on the Facebook app on my phone. Google totally has tiny data elves that hop around from device to device, sprinkling bytes of my personal information on each one like magic dust (see Stephen King’s “Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” for the care and feeding of these elusive creatures).

But how is it that when I ask the Siamese Kitten if she likes the new cat food I bought, I’m suddenly seeing ads for, a website I don’t use and have rarely if ever visited? (Don’t pretend you don’t ask your pets for their blessing on the purchases you make for them. Just don’t.) I don’t want to get into conspiracy-theory territory, but let me tell you, if Google has that level of data extraction technology at its disposal, it’s way too late to be fashioning tinfoil hats, people.

Fortunately, Archie McPhee has us covered.

Finally, there’s this: “Google’s estimation of your interests.” Now, I know this probably refers to some algorithm that plots the statistical likelihood of my interest in Brand B based on my interaction with Brand A. But I like to think there’s a human component involved, too, say, a shadowy call center where a small army of human analysts matches my online activity to ads of potential interest. I imagine these virtual tastemakers are all disgruntled former users of eHarmony, are overwhelmingly named Donna or Craig, and have extensive track records of failed relationships that were based entirely on a shared love of a particular flavor of an obscure soft drink. Who else would have the uncanny perception to assume I want to explore the world of dollhouse furniture because I spent five minutes clicking on area rugs on Amazon?

Not a sponsor, but Safavieh does offer
quality rugs at reasonable prices.
Let's see if that turns up in my profile.

All of this is leading up to the following presentation of Who I Am, by Google. According to the Ad Personalization djinns, I am:

Female: Yes! One for one!

55+ years old: Ooooh, sorry. Also, how dare they? I may be antisocial, boring, eccentric, and weird. But I am NOT over 55 (yet).

Interested in Celebrities & Entertainment News: Guilty as charged, if rather vague. If they’d pegged me as an incorrigible Benedict Cumberbatch fangirl, I’d be more impressed.

Not a Parent: I always thought a disproportionate part of my identity, both on- and offline, was bound up in being a mom to my Precocious Daughter, but I guess not. Also, what a weird category. It’s not that there’s a box for “Parent” and I don’t check it. It’s that I specifically check the “Not a Parent” box. There’s 21 years of branding shot to hell.

Interested in Shopping: I mean, yes? In that I’ve bought many things online, especially since the onset of the pandemic. I’m not sure how that differentiates me from hundreds of millions of other consumers, though. Pretty lazy profiling there, Google.

A Homeowner: 1. Google’s cache of information about me goes back at least five years. 2. Google apparently has no mechanism for modifying categories that are at least five years out of date. Sorry, plumbers and landscapers whose paid ads appear in my social media: You’ve been robbed.

Interested in Urban Transit: This one is pretty cool. I’ve looked up local light-rail schedules many times. I’ve also frequented the website for a bus service that PDaughter has used to travel between Dallas and Austin (although not recently). Congrats to Google for successfully placing me in a category not based on obvious sources like Uber or Lyft (which I’ve never used).

Employed by a Very Large Employer (10k+ Employees): On the other hand, what? In my entire adult life I’ve been employed by one company that fit this bill, and it was before I ever had an online presence. In fact, I looked it up, and I left that job before the World Wide Web even existed for public use. All the companies I’ve worked for since then don’t have 10,000 employees combined. I...well, you get the idea. Epic fail, Google.

Holder of a Bachelor’s Degree: Yes. Correct. I don’t even know how often that factoid has ever come up during my browsing activity, but they nailed it.

Interested in Combat Sports: Go home, Google Ad Personalization. You’re drunk.

Like Dogs: Who doesn’t? But yes. Possibly related to this photo from 2016:

Am Married: See homeowner status above. Also, LOL.

I urge you to check out your own Ad Personalization settings if you’re hooked into the Google hive mind like me. It’s interesting, for sure. I want to point out that literally the first items you see on that page are a checkbox to opt out of Ad Personalization entirely (not that I completely trust that Google will actually allow that with a simple check) and a link to pretty impressively detailed information on which websites participate in ad customization and which will allow you individually opt out if you wish. Also, you can simply not be logged in to Google when you’re not actively using its services (for instance, I’m writing this post on Google Drive, which I can only do because I’m logged in, and I could easily sign out once I’m finished).

Honestly, knowing what Google thinks it sees when it looks at my online activity, I’m not too worried that the Deep State will be able to pick me out of a lineup based on my profile. I have security software that provides some level of identity theft protection (and again, I could boost my personal security by deleting cookies and stored credit card info if I wanted to). And basically, I have faith that the bad guys of the Internet will, like the blind men of Indostan, stroke my squirming trunk and conclude that, after all, I am indeed some kind of snake.

Your mileage may vary. Happy browsing.

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