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 it is evil and so on. That's usually followed by how another company is better because they don't collect user information (which is equally wrong, as they all do it) 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 it processes your information, but we do have a bit of understanding of the things that are done, and why. It's an interesting — and profitable — business model and makes for a great conversation.

Google advertising ID

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

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

Google can also share generalized data to "show trends about the general use" of its services. You get counted when Google tells the world how many people use Gmail or Chrome. Google also promises that if it is ever bought out by another company, we all will get a notice in advance of any privacy policy changes and a chance to remove our data from its 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?

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, Google offers a tailored service to the people buying ad space. 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 it, as determined by my own research. Having the people who like to go fishing see my ads is really important to me.

Your personal data is valuable to Google because nobody else has at this level.

Google knows a lot about people that use its services and also like to go fishing. It knows 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 collected and your unique advertising ID is how Google keeps track of what it thinks 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 — it just stops using it in this way.

Google can then tell me that if I pay it X amount of dollars for advertising, it will be able to show my ads to devices (your phone, your tablet, and your computer) being used by folks whose advertising ID shows an 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 my product's exposure will be targeted to the people my research shows are most likely to buy it, or people who are searching for things that make a computer think they like to go fishing.

If Google sold any of this information to anyone else, it wouldn't be able to offer this unique service to other companies wanting to buy ad space. And in the end, Google is an advertisement company.

We should be concerned about the personal information we make available, and Google does collect a very concerning amount of it. The amount of data Google collects can be scary, and the ways it collects and processes it all is a bit confusing and technical (robots!), but it is not selling your data. It's too valuable to let it go.

Update August 2017: This article was originally published in 2016 but the information is still relevant. Portions were updated with new information and it is being republished.