My earliest Google search—the earliest one Google remembers, at least—was for "tetanus shot." My most recent was for "Tracy Morgan." In between, there are 52,493 searches, and Google remembers them all.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. I know Google knows essentially everything there is to know about me—and you probably do, too. With its algorithms and analytics tools, it probably knows more about me than I know about myself (statistically, I most frequently search Google at 10 AM on Tuesdays in March). But presented in its totality, it's still a bit creepy to look at a history of every single Google search you've ever done.
The company has now made it possible for you to export that history and download it from its servers. In one ZIP file, you can have a timestamped history of every random bit of trivia or thought you've ever had; of every restaurant you've ever cared to Yelp; of the times you looked up whether that movie you wanted to see was actually any good.
It has a record of the times you've looked up hangover cures and searched weird symptoms to perform a self diagnosis. It knows that you looked up the address to the hospital to visit a loved one and it knows that you didn't know the address to the funeral home a week later. And it knows every time you didn't turn on Incognito mode to search for porn.
Again, this is not necessarily surprising, but it is striking. We know Google uses its connected products and the information it has on you to help target ads and to personalize your experience, which makes using Google feel seamless. Maybe you’re fine with that—lots of people are willing to trade privacy for convenience, or for something that costs them no money. But what if you’re not?
It’s possible to change your settings so that Google doesn’t link your search history to your account. That’s a start, but Google still logs searches according to IP addresses, which can still be potentially tied back to you. You can also consider using a company like Duck Duck Go, which runs a “search engine that doesn’t track you.”
Google’s not the only one who uses your search history, of course. The record it has can be and often is subpoenaed by the government or by law enforcement.
In the first half of last year (more recent data is not yet available), the US requested user information, including search history, from Google 12,539 times. Google complied in 84 percent of cases. There are concerns that the NSA can tap the data as well. Google says that “only you can see your history,” but how true is that, really?