Does Google sell your personal data?

Google Privacy Policy
Google Privacy Policy (Image credit: Android Central)

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 data, but we do have a bit of understanding of the ways it is collected, 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 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 my research shows that people who like to go fishing are more likely to spend money and buy my product. 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. It knows what we search for online, what we buy from Amazon (and other places that use Google Analytics or send emails about purchases), where we have been and places we've investigated and even how we got to the places we've visited. 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. These things are associated with what's called your "unique advertising ID" and Google keeps track of things that this ID searches and buys and gets directions for and everything else it thinks is important.

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 associating it with your advertising ID.

It's also important to note that there are some things that Google does not associate with your advertising ID. Anything about your race, religion, sexual orientation, or health or other sensitive categories is never associated with you, even anonymously.

After all this data is collected and cataloged, Google is able to 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 an account with an advertising ID which shows an interest in fishing. My ads will also show in a rotation for people who have opted out or aren't signed into Google and don't get interest-based ads. But the bulk of my product's exposure will be targeted to the screens of devices with an advertising ID that shows an extra interest in fishing — the exact people I want to see my ads.

If Google sold any of this information to anyone else, it wouldn't be able to offer this unique service to any company 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 lot of data. It can be scary, and the ways it collects and processes it all is a bit confusing and technical (probably with robots), but it is not selling your data. It's too valuable to let it go.

Update January 2018: This article was previously published but the information is still relevant. Portions were updated with new information.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • Jerry,
    Thanks for the updated article. It provides a better picture of how data is , especially the fishing ad example. I always appreciate your articles.
  • Thank you so much for this article. It has alleviated much of my concerns about my "technological privacy."
  • Great article.
  • Thanks Jerry. Really appreciate your insight into these things. Makes a big difference.
  • Very concise and yet still informative... thanks!!
  • Thanks, Jerry. Is it possible for this article be posted on Windows Central where people are constantly wanting to know what Google will do with their information if they switch to Android? The paranoia and misinformation there on this subject needs to be addressed.
  • Hahaha, I can see the reaction now... My being a bit of a dick aside, it's actually a really good idea.
  • I'd rather write an article explaining how Microsoft does sell your data away to the highest bidder, is even more intrusive when it comes to scanning your email and analyzing your searches, then still charges $600 for a copy of Office :P But they would literally kill me.
  • Let me be the first to say that I am willing to take your selfless sacrifice for our cause.
  • Nice and informative article. But in response to the Jerry's comment... it's two sides of the same coin. Regardless of the truth, Google fans accuse Microsoft of privacy/personal data issues and Microsoft fans do the same towards Google in a never ending cycle just as your comment shows here.
  • I was just having some fun. Honestly, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon all do a decent job with keeping your data anonymised and secure. Decide which company offers you the best services in exchange for your data and go with it. Changes at Facebook are pushing them to the same spot, and while I wouldn't use Facebook today I can see that changing if they continue to be more restrictive with what they share/sell with their advertisers. I do think Google does a better job of explaining up front how they will harvest everything you do and turn it into an algorithm for Adsense, and then tell you the things they do to keep it anonymous and safe from others. Apple is getting there, but Microsoft still uses language that needs a lawyer to figure out. As long as we know that ALL these companies keep track of everything you do when you're within range of their products, it's good.
  • Absolutely right. It's all about how you value the services a company provides for the information you give them about you. I feel that the services Google provides me for no monetary cost to me is more than worth the information they learn and keep about me.
  • You mean the ones who begrudgingly buy an Android then literally try to strip away every little trace of Google from the phone in case Google are sitting looking through their camera then expect the phone to still function well? Then tear Android to pieces because the phone is now barely more than a dumbphone?
  • that's a great article.
  • I had enough of Google-sponsored posts like this one. Bye-bye Android Central...
  • see ya later
  • Bye 👋🏾
  • Truth hurts, I know.
  • I've been in the industry for 10 years, and this is a good summary. Google (and Facebook, and many others) try to build databases with as much information as possible about as many "advertiser IDs" as they can so that the ability to show ads to those "advertiser IDs" can be auctioned to the highest bidder. Companies will pay more if the ads are highly targeted because highly targeted ads work much much better. There are many potential sources for this data; the social buttons on the side of this blog, data you tell Google or search for, or even information collected and sold by third parties (like weather apps which sell your location data).
  • They don't need to sell it, all of the malware infused apps in the play store can do it for them. Protec the google hive at all costs even though they are a very unscrupulous company.
  • Not safe in Apple app store either so where ya gonna go?
  • So who are you going with?
  • The same people that post how Googlke sells your information and they are some evil corporation bent on world domination are the same people that share their lives on Facebook, Instagram, insert social platform. They are the same people that sign up for loyalty programs from every company they shop with for discounts. The same people who use credit cards and debits cards. We all know that in most large retailers and even in smaller ones that when you use a credit/debit card they can match that card and number to a real person. Companies make a lot of money doing this. Then that company that you bought specialty dog food from or body lotion can turn around and mail you an offer to come back. That loyalty program works the same way. They get your information that you freely given them and they track your every move. What did you buy, what's your income, what car you drive. How often do you shop, what is your average spend. All these companies use this information to entice you to come back more. AND YES, THESE COMPANIES SELL THEIR INFORMATION ON YOU TO OTHER COMPANIES! I have been working in a certain industry for years and any normal person would be amazed at what we know, the size of the databases we keep and how we use it. My point, if you feel google violates your privacy, then you should probably be living in the middle of nowhere in the forest or mountains living off only the land.
  • For real. What retailers do with your information is scary. My PetSmart card might save me $3 a month on parrot food, but I'm giving away a million dollars worth of my privacy to get it.
  • Yeah. I think currently the most aggressive is Amazon. I get texts \ emails on deals with items and comparative items in My Wishlist, and on items that I have bought etc. Some of it is interesting, most of it is annoying. As long as Android users have the ability to turn off such things - I guess I'm good. ie. - I don't want to lose that ability - to turn off notifications or to block adds...
  • I always search items on Amazon via Firefox Focus. That way I don't get dozens of follow up emails from Amazon about the items I've searched. Especially useful when I've searched items I probably won't buy or that aren't for me but for elderly relatives who don't use the internet. And I learned about Firefox Focus from one of Jerry's articles about guarding our privacy!
  • The beginning of this article is not really true
    That doesn’t change the fact that with google you are the product. It’s an objective thing, if it’s good or bad itns up to anybody’s opinion. Their service is free. They don’t sell your datas but use it to make money. In a way we are paying for google services with our datas
  • Objectivity is not an opinion. Subjectivity is an opinion
  • "We should be concerned about the personal information we make available, and Google does collect a lot of data." Which is why laws like the European "Right to be forgotten" are very important and Governments should go further in giving citizens the means to force corporations like Google (and Microsoft, and Apple, and Amazon etc) to completely erase all the data they have on you when requested.
  • C'mon now, those European "commies" are just jealous over Google's success and all they want is to destroy competition, by telling businesses what they can and can not do. Self regulation is the greatest tool ever! EU govt would never keep consumer's interest in mind. I mean why would anyone sane want their privacy protected or say ability to completely remove something from the cloud or email on their account. All they want is Google's money. That's why can hear a lot. Sadly, what those fear mongers of the Big Brother - Government fail to see is that Google and all Big Business already have that role. From the way they run Corp to the way they control Corrupt US Govt. Actually it's really hard to distinguish between the two, because these 2 sectors in US are extremely intertwined. There is a revolving door
    super busy at all times.
    Electronic communication should be treated just as any other talk. If I told you something in person it has to stay between us , unless you personally share. Google should not have any right to peek into my convo by any means (not to mention share with others) and only if I allow it may look into my browsing or online shopping. What it certainly can not be allowed is to see and store my communication and have it out of my control what happens when I don't want it deleted.
    Facebook was way worse that's for sure. So, all in all, we all depend on the good will of a few power hungry people. As if we are in the minority. Maybe informed people indeed are in minority, thanks to the Pacifying power of the media and paid for political discourse.
    So far, the study shows (Princeton's) that Govt Policies in US reflect around 10% of actual people's demands. That's as far from representative democracy as you can get.
    Maybe we should ask 7 Gods for some help. :)
  • With those countries it makes zero difference being that they are nanny states to begin with
  • So, why is it that even though I use a ton of Google services most of the ads I see are completely irrelevant to me? I just went to this site on my phone and the first ad I see is for a degree program in Business Analytics. I am well past college age, have no background or interest in business schools, and actively work in a completely unrelated profession. This is typical. The vast majority of ads I see are of zero interest to me and not even related to anything I do or am interested in.
  • "Google needs a trusted third-party to help process it — using these same privacy standards." Key point, third party GOOGLE trusts. Also missing the part where Google uses the data to see who has ideas that should be silenced as some of their management is on record saying they do.