How Google is tracking you, and how to avoid it

Tracking is an essential part of online advertising. The more advertising companies know about users who visit web pages and services they display ads on, the better targeted advertisements can be displayed to those users.

When it comes to tracking, Google is without doubt the uncrowned king of it based on the popularity of some of its services and the sheer number of other services that are widely used.

It is not clear if and how the information are used by Google to track users across its services, but it is very likely that at least some information are shared across services, websites and applications.

In fact, it is rather difficult to avoid running into any Google service while you are on the Internet.

Google tracking list

google

Google Search - The most used search engine in the world. Depending on which stats you look at, it captures about 90% of the search market globally. This includes Google custom search which webmasters use to power their site's search functionality.

YouTube - The world's leading video website. Users access it directly but also in form of embedded videos on third-party websites.

Google Apps - This includes a number of popular services such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Drive, Google Earth, Picasa, or Google Sites to name a few.

Google Chrome - Google's web browser that has captured a large share of the market in just a couple of years. Chromebooks are rising in popularity as well.

Google Android - The mobile operating system dominates the mobile device market.

Google DNS - If you have switched your DNS servers to Google, the company knows about every single website and service you visit regardless of program used to do so.

Google Adsense - The world's dominating cpc and cpm advertising service used on many web services. Installed by third-parties. Also included here are DoubleClick (ad management and serving solution) and AdMob (mobile advertising network).

Google Analytics - Another highly popular service that webmasters integrate on their websites to record visitor statistics. Installed by third-parties.

Google Plus - Is often displayed as a widget on websites to provide visitors with options to share the article or service on Google's social networking service. Installed by third-parties.

Google Fonts - A compilation of free web fonts that websites can use directly.

Google App Engine - Run apps on Google servers in the cloud.

How to avoid all of this?

So how can you avoid being tracked by Google? Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Use alternatives whenever possible. Instead of using Google Search, use Startpage or DuckDuckGo instead, instead of Google DNS use OpenDNS or another DNS provider, and instead of Google Chrome use Firefox.
  • You can take care of advertisement using ad-blockers or script blockers such as NoScript. NoScript will not only block ads but also Google Analytics, Fonts, embeds and more automatically and with options to enable each script or embed individually should the need arise.
  • Make sure you clear cookies -- including LSO -- and your browsing history regularly.
  • Log out of Google whenever you do not use your account, or use a secondary browser for specific Internet activities such as playing YouTube videos or searching on the Internet (or profiles in Firefox which works well for that purpose).

Google offers some means to opt-out of data collection for specific services. You can get a browser add-on to opt-out of Google Analytics data tracking or opt-out of personalized Adsense ads, but there is no option to opt-out of it all.

Did I miss a service that Google may use to track user activity on the Internet? Have another suggestion on how to avoid being tracked by the company? Let me know in the comment section below.

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How Google is tracking you, and how to avoid it
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An analysis of the services and products that Google may use to track your online activities, and how to avoid being tracked.
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Responses to How Google is tracking you, and how to avoid it

  1. jNizM June 2, 2014 at 9:08 am #

    Hosts or ZeroHosts (http://someonewhocares.org/hosts/)

  2. Tom Hawack June 2, 2014 at 9:24 am #

    Perhaps it may be interesting to note Google dedicated Firefox add-ons which aim to temporize, at least, Google tracking.

    I know three of them which do come in handy, among many others :

    1- Google/Yandex search link fix ( https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/google-search-link-fix/ ) ;
    2- NO Google Analytics ( https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/no-google-analytics/ ) ;
    3- Searchonymous ( https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/searchonymous/ )

    Alternative search engines of course, I'd forget unfortunately DuckDuckGo because if it struggles for a pretty layout it seems to forget fundamentals such as mainly a time filter. StartPage is interesting.

    Thanks for this article and, for sure, taking into consideration the information it provides helps to aggregate a relative user's privacy. Disconnect add-on is also essential, I believe. Etc. etc. ...

  3. xtremezz June 2, 2014 at 9:54 am #

    Try blocking ajax.googleapis.com in Lightbeam/NoScript etc. and you'll get a good sense of how integrated Google is in your internet experience.

    I use FireFox as my main browser, fully locked down, and a second PaleMoon profile for those cases where I need to be more permissive.

    Also finding I barely need Ixquick anymore, DuckDuckGo is enough for me in almost all cases.

    • Tim June 2, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

      Tell me about it, I'm always seeing TCP connections to Google IP addresses just by visiting normal websites with no obvious relation to Google/Google ads. It can be a nuisance when websites use googleapis because if you block googleapis.com quite often their websites wont work properly, especially ones that reply on googleapis's JQuerys.

      Another one it Captcha's, if you have google.com blocked, the Captcha's are invisible so you don't realise you're being asked to fill out a Captcha in order to continue.

      • anon June 12, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

        how feasible would it be to replace these blocked connections will locally cached versions?

  4. David Bradley June 2, 2014 at 11:01 am #

    The thing is...all this tracking and privacy invasion is for the sake of advertising stuff...but...I never buy anything, so they're really just wasting all those CPU cycles on me ;-)

    • Trebuchette June 9, 2014 at 6:28 pm #

      Or, as Google's eric schmidt said, they're an "identity service". Identity, while important for advertisers, can also be used for other purposes.

      Nefarious ones.

  5. BBB June 2, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    For analytics and tracking , ghostery & add block pro (manually set all analytics & co)

    Most will still use google search as search engine because it is still one of the best around.
    To avoid these trackings you can also use "Disconnect Search" this leads you to a search proxy for google.
    Downside is that you can not personalize your search obviously, also the standard open in new tab setting is not available.
    https://disconnect.me/search

  6. craigHJ June 2, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

    > Tom Hawack "Pale Moon" browser

    1

    ...looks interesting-- I'll give it a try. I do not trust Firefox any longer and never trusted Google.

    Very difficult to find trustworthy browser now. Don't want my browser connecting to anything unless I specifically direct/authorize it. Google-Chrome (and derivatives) instantly connects to Google servers when merely opening that browser -- with no way for user to block it. Simple NetStat queries on most "idle" browsers reveal quiet internet connections established right away.

    Thought Pale Moon was a proprietary mainland Chinese product -- but closer look indicates it as an open-source project by a lone Netherlands developer, now living/working in Sweden. Maybe there are even more good browser out there, but unknown to most people.

    • Tom Hawack June 2, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

      I'm using Pale Moon 24.5.0 (latest) in its 64-bit (PM has 32 and 64 bit) deployment on a Windows 7 64-bit platform, and I enjoy every minute of it, enabling Firefox architecture as I loved it before it became bloated with gadgets, disgraceful and less and less cutomizable.

      This said, I'm bouncing on your word "Very difficult to find trustworthy browser now.". I'd add, to surf in peace.

      I mean, what has the Web become or rather, what is it becoming? If one starts being objective about the Web conditions nowadays, the picture is simply an amount of constant dangers, those related to security, those to privacy, those to advertisement (all three sometimes on the same vector). Blessed are the ignorant? At least if they get harmed they won't have seen the danger arising, and that means no stress. Stress is harm as well.

      The Web could be a wonderful world-wide platform. But am I being that dogmatic to wish a world which is not the real world, when the Web is, by its very nature, a reflection of the world and not that of an ideology, be it of peace and brotherhood.

      I guess the Web is not the real problem, therefor. But it concentrates what dreamers sometimes tend to forget, that is the amazing sum of dishonesty within mankind.

  7. Karl Gephart June 2, 2014 at 6:21 pm #

    Martin, is there much of anything that can be done to privatize an Android device from Google tracking?

    • Martin Brinkmann June 2, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

      Well you can disable certain features such as Google Now, or prevent update checks, or root the device and install a firewall on it to monitor all traffic, or use the excellent NoRoot Firewall that I reviewed some time ago.

    • Alex June 2, 2014 at 10:23 pm #

      Buy a Firefox OS smartphone :)

  8. Derivatives Guru ; ) June 2, 2014 at 6:45 pm #

    Yes there is... Check it out : Epic Private Browser . Especially for users not skillful in making plenty of tweaks and addons installing . It is Chromium based but even every ID's are removed - Firefox has plenty ID's hidden and perhaps can't be removed (most obvious :unique alfanumeric profile name) .
    http://www.epicbrowser.com/
    http://www.softpedia.com/get/Internet/Browsers/Epic-Browser.shtml = don't know why ratings are not higher....

  9. Blue June 2, 2014 at 9:35 pm #

    Hmm, I use Google search, and many of their products and even have an Android phone, I use Adblock plus in conjunction with Ghostery, but I don't have a problem with Google tracking me. If I use their products I should abide by their rules yes? So I don't have a problem with it. It's like buying an Jaguar XJS XII (expensive sports car) then removing everything about the car that makes it recognizable as that name brand like the Jaguar hood ornament the XJS XII lettering on the back and for that matter how about we swap out the body of the car so no one can tell it's really a Jaguar. What is the point?

    • Jan June 3, 2014 at 1:05 am #

      Your comparison is totally biased, to the point it's even not a comparison.
      Let me explain why :

      1)Google case : advertiser is the customer who pay to throw you ads, you consum products which show a lot of what you think (even some things you would probably not tell to anyone), what you like/dislike, who you know and which relations you have (gmail/talk in case you wonder not using g+). Everything is recorded ad vitam eternam and build a profile from which you can find an enormous amount of information. What make this profile the more threatening is it is not limited to that thing or that other, since there is an enormous range of google products to get infos from everywhere, thus even if there are for most of them better replacements. Also, from apparently inocuous data you can very effectively deduce private data you never directly shared.
      While the ads to get the products free may be an acceptable deal, the data-mining and tracking isn't when you realize how far it goes.

      2)Jaguar case : you are the customer who pay for the product. Once you have bought the car, it's your, you do whatever please you with it and Jaguar know nothing about where you go with it or who you take onboard.

      Not comparable, uh ?

      You may want to have a look at the very interesting and well done parody : http://google-nest.org/

      The messianic and monopolistic google behaviors are other reasons to stay aware of it. Inform yourself about those.

      • Loren July 14, 2014 at 6:39 am #

        How accurate will this massive amount of data be? One day you search for the nearest animal hospital for your neighbors pet -- does it mean you own one? You order a new fishing pole -- is it a gift you buy once, or something you use? Someone else uses your computer - now you are a different sex. Unless the camera is on, and they have your photo handy, they really do not know who is typing anything. If they sell your life to some other company, they have nothing -- no way to place ads which would be better than the company they sold your data to.

        I guess you could go all in for Apple, and hope your data is secure. Not sure about Microsoft and their phone is not quite there yet -- maybe it will be better soon.

        As for Big Brother and 1984, it seems that Europe demanding that data be wiped is the closest thing to a Memory Hole which one could imagine :o

  10. Phil June 2, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

    In reality, this advice is not all that useful. If you ever use any Google resources at all from a particular PC or IP address, Google knows about it. If you have ever logged in to a Google account from that IP or PC, Google can tie that account to any other activity, whether you were logged in or not, based on the IP, browser signature, etc. Simply logging out of Google or deleting cookies will not work and does not anonymize you.

    • Martin Brinkmann June 2, 2014 at 11:43 pm #

      Google needs to get your IP address for that though, and how will they do that if you block their services and don't use the company's devices and programs?

  11. Sam @ Frugaling.org June 3, 2014 at 6:09 am #

    I just wanted to mention that the information regarding Google DNS privacy appears to be inaccurate. If you look at Google's page for their DNS service (located here: https://developers.google.com/speed/public-dns/privacy), they say that there's temporary and permanent information storage. IP and location information is stored temporarily -- up to 48 hours. It's never combined or logged alongside your Google account; therefore, the data never gets linked to you after that period of time. Permanent information includes geolocation. But in reality, only a small, subsample is kept for permanent storage. Again, at that point, it's not connected to you or your Google account.

    • hy June 3, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

      Sorry, but how could anyone ever trust Google, or what they say? Look at the constant stream of revelations about them, and let us not forget: they are in the business of collecting as much data as possible about everyone—to believe them if they say in some cases that they voluntarily do otherwise seems to me naïve at best. I cannot even imagine using Google search, Gmail, Chrome, etc.--running Google DNS and trusting them is positively unthinkable to me.

  12. JustMe June 4, 2014 at 5:49 am #

    Why even create a google login? If you log into google they track everything you do with ease. I NUKED my google account and Facebook accounts shortly after the Snowden revelations to take control of my privacy.

    There are a ton of great privacy addons, like HTTP switchboard and ZenMate. The EditThisCookie and HistoryEraser are also fantastic for privacy.

  13. exlnc June 4, 2014 at 7:24 pm #

    Make one for Faceb00k.

    "How Faceb00k is tracking you and how to avoid it!"

  14. rohit October 15, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

    how to learn working of google and other websites.

  15. rohit October 15, 2014 at 9:23 pm #

    can you give suggestions for how to become a hacker.

  16. Jingyansu Choudhury November 10, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

    I hadn't used Google (not even as my web browser) for quite some time & when I tried to log on I forgot my password. They then wanted me to answer a multitude of personal questions so!!! guess what? I deleted this site. There are plenty of 'user friendly' sites out there. Anyway, here is the way to stop google from tracking you. http://techyuga.com/how-to-stop-google-from-tracking-you/

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