The short version — No. It's more valuable to them if they keep it for themselves.

This is a question (often posed as a fact, but it's not) we see almost daily. Someone in an article's comments or on social media will trot out the line about how Google sells your private data and they are evil and so on. It's usually followed with how another company is better because they don't collect user information (protip: they all do) or a bit about you being the product. It might even happen in the comments on this article. Sometimes the "Information Age" is also the disinformation age.

To be clear, nobody outside of Google knows the exact details of how they process your information, but we do have an understanding of what they do with it all, and why. It's an interesting — and profitable — business model, and makes for a great conversation.

When you agree to the terms and privacy policy of any Google product, you're told from the start what data they collect (it's a lot, to be sure) and exactly who they will share it with and when. Basically, they only share your data if:

  • You ask them to share it.
  • A government forces them to share it in court.
  • You have a Google apps domain administrator managing your account(s).
  • They need a trusted third-party to help process it — using these same privacy standards.

They also can share generalized data to "show trends about the general use" of their services. You get counted when they tell the world how many people use Gmail or Chrome. They also promise that if Google ever gets sold to another company, we will get notice in advance of any privacy policy changes and a chance to remove our data from their servers.

The privacy policy is really easy to read, and written in plain language that anyone can understand. You should read it.

So, how do they make money this way?

Google advertising ID

This is the interesting part. Google does use your data to make money. A lot of money. Scrooge McDuck swimming in a pool filled with gold coins level money. But not by selling it off.

Instead, they offer a tailored service to the people buying ad space from Google. Let's say I make a product that appeals to people who like to go fishing. I want everyone to know about my product, but people who like to go fishing are the folks most likely to spend money and buy my product, as determined by my own research. Having the people who like to go fishing see my ads is really important to me.

Google does use your data to make money. A lot of money. Scrooge McDuck swimming in a pool filled with gold coins level money. But not by selling it off.

Google knows a lot about people that use their services and also like to go fishing. They know what we search for online, what we buy from Amazon (and other places), where we have been and places we've investigated and even how we got to the places we've been to. That's some scary stuff, but we need to remember that Google disassociates it all from your personal identity as it's collected and processed. No human being is reading your stuff, because there is too much stuff to read. Things about you are marked down and your unique advertising ID is how they keep track of what they think is important. And you have some control over all of this. Visit your Google My Account pages and see just what you're sharing, and how you can manage it all. Opting out of interest-based ads is easy, though it doesn't mean Google stops collecting the data — they just stop using it in this way.

Google can then tell me that if I pay them X amount of dollars for advertising, they will be able to show my ads to devices (your phone, your tablet and your computer) being used by folks whose advertising ID shows they are interested in going fishing. My ads will also show in a rotation for people who have opted out and don't get interest-based ads, but the bulk of exposure my product will be getting is targeted to the people my research shows are most likely to buy my product or people who are searching for things that makes a computer think they like to go fishing.

If Google sold any of this information to anyone else, they wouldn't be able to offer this unique service to people wanting to by ad space. The amount of data Google collects can be scary, and the ways they collect and process it all is a bit confusing and technical (robots!), but they aren't selling your data. It's too valuable to let it go.