By NATHAN OLIVAREZ-GILES
July 1, 2016 3:56 p.m. ET
Have you ever wondered what data Google collects on you as you surf the web and use its apps and services? My Activity, a new tool from the Alphabet Inc.-owned search giant, gives you a better picture than ever before of your digital tracks—but it still doesn’t tell you everything.
If you have a Google account (and you do if you use Gmail, Google Docs, YouTube or any other Google services), you’ll find My Activity at myaccount.google.com. Once logged in, you get a list of privacy and security options, including a link that says “Go to my activity.”
There you will see a timeline of websites you visited (with links), things you have looked up in Google’s search engine or the Google Play app store, places found in Google Maps and videos you watched in YouTube. A search box lets you find specific things in your vast timeline and filter searches by date or by a specific Google product (Chrome, YouTube, Maps, etc.).
Like a browser history, My Activity also lets you delete specific events. Just click the three-dot button for a menu. A Google spokeswoman said that when you delete anything from My Activity, Google no longer takes that data into consideration when profiling you.
Having this all in one location, across so many Google apps and services, is both helpful and more transparent. Here’s the catch: My Activity defaults to only showing data for the device you are on at the time. If you want to see this data across multiple devices, then you will need to opt in to an advertising privacy setting that will give Google permission to combine this data with other data on you that Google currently keeps separate. This includes the data it collects from your personal interactions inside Gmail, Google Calendar and other apps you won’t see listed in My Activity.
Google already tracks some of what you do inside those apps, to add booked flights to your calendar, for example, or block spammy emails. However, until now it didn’t use that data to target ads at you. A spokeswoman for the company said that combining these two silos of data will let Google better personalize the ads you see in apps and the web in the short term, and in the long term, it will lead to better privacy tools too. Even after you opt to combine all your data, there is still no way to see precisely what Google is logging when it is combing through all of your emails.
Bear in mind, whether or not you opt into Google’s personalized ad tracking, you still will see personalized ads—they just likely will be less relevant to your interests.
If you do want to opt in, go back to the My Account website. Under Personal Info & Privacy, there is a link for ad settings. Click that, then click “Manage ads settings.” Next to the check box for Google’s ad personalization, there is some text that is worth reading: “Also use Google Account activity and information to personalize ads on these websites and apps and store that data in your Google Account.” You can opt out later if you want.
Like Google, Facebook tracks the websites you visit, and collects data on what you do inside of its apps and services, using all that data to target ads. But whereas Google gives you a choice whether or not to combine these different data sets, Facebook does it by default. If you don’t want Facebook to track your web activity to target ads, you have to dig into a series of confusing menus to turn it off.
I’ve opted out of Facebook’s tracking because there is no real benefit for me since I largely ignore the ads I see on Facebook anyway. But I’ve opted in to Google’s new personalized ad tracking because of the incentive of being able to see what Google is tracking across all my devices. If Facebook ever creates something as easy and transparent as what Google is doing with My Activity, I might change my mind.
Whatever your preference, My Activity is a great tool for anyone with a Google account—and an important reminder that when you do use all these free apps and services, you are giving up personal data to do it.