Do you realize that Google may have recorded and stored every single search term you have ever punched into its search box? Chances are some of those searches could be soberingly damaging to your reputation. What about Gmail? Have you ever sent any sensitive e-mails? How about business information stored in Google Docs?
Unless you sat out the last decade offline, you've likely been building a pretty thorough profile of yourself on Google Inc.'s servers. Depending on which of the dozens of Google services you use, data about your habits, interests, activities, schedule, professional pursuits, stock portfolio and medical history could be sitting somewhere on Google's servers -- along with records of the trip routes you've mapped, the Web sites you've visited and much more.
The good news is that Google anonymizes its server logs by removing the last three digits from the IP addresses associated with searches after nine months and by deleting the associated cookies after 18 months, which makes it very difficult to link you to searches that are more than 18 months old.
That's still a pretty big window into your life, though. What if any or all of that data ever became public? An attacker could conceivably get access to your information on Google by hacking directly into its servers, or by hacking into your individual account.
"There is a huge amount of stuff on Google," says Gartner Research VP Jay Heiser, "and it would be naive to believe that all that information wasn't of huge interest to a wide variety of people."
What's more, the large number of services Google offers means there are multiple ways of accessing data. "Each service brings its own unique risks," says Heiser. "There's potential for a minor vulnerability in one to add up to a more significant vulnerability when combined with something else."
Bottom line? Big Brother knows a whole lot more than you probably thought. But you don't have to avoid Google to keep yourself reasonably safe. You just need to take steps to prevent potentially dangerous information from being stored on Google's servers in the first place, and to protect the integrity of your account.