Take back control of all the personal data.
Google tracks you on and off the web in a myriad of ways – that’s no surprise. But you can wrestle back some level of control. Want to stop Google from knowing anything about you? That’s nigh-on impossible: the advertising giant collects data every time you search the web, every time you visit a website, every time you use your Android phone – you name it, Google is using it to collect data about you. It’s the cost of getting so many services without spending any money, but there are ways to limit what Google collects about you.
What Google knows about what you do.
There are two ways to get a copy of all the data Google collects on you: Takeout and Dashboard. Takeout was created to let users grab their data from Google and shift it to another service, beginning with photos and contacts but since expanding to Android device settings, Chrome bookmarks, Google Fit activity data, and even your Cloud Print history. Building the Takeout archive can take a few days to create, with Google sending you a link to download when it’s ready.
Dashboard was designed with data management in mind, offering a snapshot of the data Google collects about you as you use its services. That includes the number of email exchanges you’ve had in Gmail, number of files in Drive, and how many photos Google stores for you, but the key information is what Google dubs “activity data”, such as your location or searches or browsing history. If you want to freak someone out, show them their location timeline, where Google Maps keeps track of everywhere you go and when, alongside the photos taken that day and travel times down to the minute.
Another source of Google data is your personal profile, held in your Google Account. Under the menu, head to “Personal Info”: on this page, you can see what information Google makes public about you and update information such as your photo and birthdate. You can’t simply delete this data, but if you want to obfuscate you can of course enter false information – just remember you’ve done so in case you need that information for password resets.
What Google thinks it knows about you
Google uses the data it collects to build an advertising profile, making its money via ads – Google’s parent firm Alphabet posted ad revenue of $32.6 billion last quarter – not by directly selling your data, but through letting companies personalise their advertisements; this is why that pair of trainers you’ve been coveting keep following you around the web. Such behavioural advertising can be more sophisticated than that. Google notes that if you search on Maps for “football fields near me” or watch match highlights on YouTube, it can put two and two together that you’re a football fan.
Handily, you can see who Google thinks you are by heading to Ad Settings. There, Google paints a picture of who it thinks you are: your age and gender, what topics you’re interested in from air travel to world news, and companies you’ve visited online.
Eyeing up Takeout, Dashboard, and your personal and advertising profile, you’ll get a good sense of the epic mountain of data Google is accumulating about who you are, where you go, and what interests you. If you think Google is leaving something out, or has more data on you it’s not willingly revealing, you can also file a subject-access request, which is a right enshrined in EU law to find out what data any organisation holds on you.
How to clean up your Google account settings
Now that you’ve got a sense of the epic scale of data being collected, it’s time to do something about it. Google’s default settings favour data collection rather than personal privacy, but the company has made it easier to consider your settings on the Data & Personalisation page with the Privacy Checkup, which walks you through a set of questions regarding your settings.
That includes “activity” settings, profile information and personalised advertising; if you’ve got a Google account, get a cup of tea (or something stronger) and spend half an hour going through each and every control.
Web & App activity
Web & App activity collects your searches and browsing activity in Google apps such as Chrome as well as apps that use Google Services, such as mapping. That’s used to power previous searches and make suggestions; if you turn this off, you’ll not see your recent searches or personalised results. Turning this off doesn’t block Google from knowing which sites you visit.
If you talk to your phone or a Google Home device, such as by clicking the microphone icon in Chrome or saying “Okay Google”, a record is kept. Google says it uses that data to improve its speech recognition, including to better understand your specific voice. Each clip is accompanied by details of when the recording was made and through which app, such as Chrome or the Android Google App — you can even play back the sound clips. They can be deleted en-masse or one-by-one. These recordings can be disabled in your account under My Activity.
Location history tracks where you are even when you aren’t using Google Maps. Google asks whatever device you’re using where you are, and holds onto that data. Head to your Timeline to see the full scale of it: if you use Android, Google likely knows where you were at all points in time for years. The personalised services this offers aren’t impressive: turn off location history, and you can still use Maps, but won’t get recommendations based on places you visited or “useful” ads. Turn it off in Activity controls, and delete existing data in Timeline. Even if you do turn off location history tracking, Google still knows where you are and other apps may nab that information; to fully stop that, you’ll also need to turn off Web & App Activity, too.
Alongside the above, you can also disable YouTube Watch History and Search History, which Google uses for recommendations, and manage Google Photos, such as turning off facial recognition and removing location data from the metadata of shared photos.
If you don’t want personalised ads, you can turn them off in Ad Settings, and under Options, stop Google from using your web activity and other information from Google services to personalise ads. You’ll still see ads – this isn’t a blocker – and Google will lose any personalisation you’ve requested, such as if you’ve asked not to be shown specific ads or topic areas. Google will also still collect information such as the subject of the page you’re looking at, time of day, and your location, it just won’t pair that with your previous browsing history or what you watched on YouTube.
Demographic information, such as your age and gender, can’t be deleted but can be updated; if you’re trying to avoid Google’s reach, there’s nothing to say you can’t lie here, though Google may well suss out your deception and switch you back to a 35-44 year-old woman, even if you try to tell the company you were actually born a man in 1927.
Topics of interest can be changed or deleted by clicking “turn off”; this information is based on your Activity Controls described above, so if you want Google to stop collecting and using your browsing information to uncover your interests, turn off Web & App Activity and turn off Ad Personalisation. If you want to turn those ad signals back on, scroll back down to “what you’ve turned off” to re-enable them.
You can also turn off specific advertisers in Ad Settings. Click the name of the company, and Google will reveal why it thinks you’re interested – perhaps you visited the advertiser’s website or app – and let you click to “turn off” those ads. That doesn’t mean you won’t ever see ads from that company, but they won’t be based on personalised data.
Other ways to staunch the data leak
The best way to limit Google’s data collection is to delete your account, but you needn’t go that far to staunch the flow. Can’t live without Gmail or Maps? You can limit some of the collection by switching to some non-Google products and services where it suits you. For example, ditch Chrome for Firefox or Brave. Use DuckDuckGo rather than Google Search. If you can afford it, ditch your Android for an iPhone. And so on.
You can delete your account entirely – but even then, Google may still keep tracking you via what one report called “passive data”, though Google said it doesn’t tie your name or other identifiable details to that profile.
Because of that, a more proactive approach may be necessary even for those without Google accounts. As with any online activity, ad blockers such as AdBlock Plus and privacy extensions like Disconnect or Ghostery will stop surveillance systems such as cookies and social trackers. On Android, the Firefox Focus browser has such tools built in; on desktop, consider the Brave browser.
references: wired, google
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