How I tried and failed to quit Google

By Dan Patterson

/ CBS News

Google organizes nearly every aspect of my life. I've outsourced my memory to Google Search. Why remember things, when technology can sift and surface nuggets of information at precisely the right moment? Gmail helps me manage the unending stream of email messages and notifications. Google Calendar prepares me for every meeting, and Google Maps gets me to those meetings on time.

But I'm concerned about how the tech giant's broad reach and technological capability impacts my life. I'm also concerned about my reliance on the company's tools and services. Google's is so effective — and pervasive — that disconnecting from the company's services is a daunting process. I know, because last week I tried to quit Google entirely.

"Google provides internet users with the incredible convenience of logging in with a Gmail account across a plethora of non-Google web and mobile apps. For most consumers, that sounds great," said David Kohl, president and CEO of digital advertising marketplace TRUSTX. In exchange for our attention and our personal information, Google provides us with search, communication, and productivity applications. Many consumers and businesses find this to be a mutually beneficial relationship.

But Kohl warns that Google's ability to harvest data from mobile phones and web browsers likely exceeds what most people expect. "You're giving Google permission to track your online and mobile behaviors across more and more of your digital life."

According to the company's privacy dashboard, I use 61 different Google services. Twelve of these services are critical to organizing my personal and professional life, including Search, Gmail, Calendar, Maps, and Photos. I access these services using Google's browser Chrome, and my work cellphone runs on Google's mobile operating system Android.

It's very simple to delete your Google account by navigating to myaccount.google.com. But saving your data is a lot more complex. Because I rely on many Google services, extracting myself from the tech giant without losing everything was a multi-step, multi-day process. I used a to-do list application called Things to track my progress and make sure my data archive was complete.

Next, I saved a copy of my data. (Never delete without a backup!) Fortunately, Google makes this a fairly painless process. I was able to use Takeout, the company's data download tool located at takeout.google.com, to create an archive of each service. I've been using a Google account since 2004, so my backup files were massive. Google informed me that each archive would take several days to generate.

Finding alternatives to Google

I had to find and install alternatives for all those Google products and services. Because I use so many, I spent hours researching software and applications.

Fastmail is a great replacement for Gmail. While the user interface is relatively unappealing, the technology is robust. To replace Google Drive and store files in the cloud, I opened a Dropbox account. I purchased a subscription to Ulysses , a charming and full-featured word-processing application to use instead of Google Docs. I'm a Mac user, so it was fairly simple to migrate my calendar to Fantastical , a great alternative to Apple's native calendar. There are dozens of scheduling apps for Android and Windows users.

The one Google product I found nearly impossible to replace was Search. Alternative search engines like Bing and DuckDuckGo are fine, but these tools operate in a silo. Google search is spectacularly effective and deeply integrated across Google's applications, including Gmail and Google Docs. Without Google, it's no longer nearly as easy to search within my email or documents.

Five days after initiating Google Takeout, my data was ready for download. I stored the 500-gigabyte file on a local hard drive, directed Firefox to my Google privacy dashboard, and deleted years of data. Over a hundred thousand email messages, documents, and events vanished instantly.

I was free from Google. Kind of.

Google's "obsessive" data collection doesn't stop

Douglas C. Schmidt, a DARPA alum and professor of engineering at Vanderbilt University, warns that the company's advertising technology can still monitor my online activity. Even when you log out of Google services and use an alternative web browser, according to Schmidt's research the company might still be gathering data about your online behavior through its advertiser and publisher products.

"It would be almost impossible to overstate how obsessive Google's data collection is," Schmidt said. "As long as you use [a phone] to browse the Web — even if you use no Google products or services — Google will be able to track your online activities."

Google follows your activity, said Schmidt "either via your Google ID or via your shadow profile," the advertising outline of your online behavior. "In particular," said Schmidt, "if a user decides to forgo the use of any Google product and visits only non-Google webpages, the number of times data is communicated to Google servers still remains surprisingly high. This communication is driven purely by advertiser/publisher services."

Additionally, both Chrome and Android send data back to Google over a dozen times per hour, and hundreds of times per day, said Schmidt, "even in the absence of any user interaction." In fact, the research demonstrates that a dormant, stationary Android phone communicated location information to Google 340 times during a 24-hour period. Location information constituted 35 percent of all the mobile data samples sent to Google.

Google also harvests data about you from retail transactions and "third-party" data brokers, according to Schmidt's research. Third-party data is information that's gathered about you by a company that might not have a direct relationship with you, like the credit monitoring services Experian and Acxiom. These data vendors build and sell lists of personal information about millions of individuals.

According to Schmidt, in 2014 Google announced that it would acquire data from retail stores. This information included nearly 70 percent of all credit and debit transactions in the U.S., including the name of the individual, as well as the time, location, and amount of the purchase.

When I told my family, friends, and colleagues I had deleted Google because I was uncomfortable with their data harvesting policies, most gave me a cockeyed look. Some expressed concern about how technology firms use our personal data, but couldn't understand why I would quit a service. "I totally get why you're worried about big tech companies," said one close friend, "but won't you feel lonely or kind of isolated without Google?"

I asked Jason Kint, CEO of the digital advertising association Digital Content Next, this same question. His answer surprised me. "We need to push back hard on this outcome. Yes, it's nearly impossible to live your life without being on the internet. And the internet, including Google, has brought incredible good to the world. But if a cost to using the internet is allowing Google to be able to mine the details of your life that no one else in the world, not even your spouse, is privy to then we've allowed the original promise of it to be captured by Google's commercial interests."

Epilogue: My experiment was successful for about two weeks. I was dispirited after learning from Dr. Schmidt that I'd be tracked even after deleting my data. And I was frustrated by the inefficiencies of alternative services. Google products are omnipresent. They're also very good. So I opened a fresh Google account, this time using G Suite, the company's paid productivity service. While I might still be tracked using G Suite, at least I can pay to not see ads.

First published on December 18, 2018

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Dan Patterson

Dan Patterson is a senior producer for CNET and CBS News. He covers the tech trends that shape business, politics, and culture.

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