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7 Google privacy settings you should revisit right now

Google gives you more control over what you share and how it gets used than you might think—if you know where to look. Here’s a step-by-step guide.

7 Google privacy settings you should revisit right now
[Photo: Zyabich/iStock]

Google’s making a serious play for privacy these days, with much of the company’s recent I/O developers’ conference revolving around the theme of choice and transparency in how your data is stored.

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And you know what? Despite Google’s oft-discussed practice of using your personal information to deliver relevant ads—throughout Google’s own services and on websites that utilize its AdSense ad network—the company is up front about its practices and happy to let you opt in or out of almost any form of data collection.

At the same time, though, it’s up to you to seek out and adjust those options. By default, Google tends to allow for the maximum amount of data collection across its various apps and services. Sure, you might technically check a box that opts you in during your initial account setup—but if you really want to claim control over exactly how Google collects your activity and uses that information, the onus is on you to take the initiative and figure out how to do it.

Here’s an easy-to-follow roadmap to some of the company’s most consequential privacy settings.

1. Your web and app activity

  • What it does: The vaguely named “web and app activity” includes a virtual smorgasboard of personal data. Everything you’ve searched for in Google is collected there, as is every page you’ve ever visited in Chrome (in both cases, assuming that you’re signed in). You’ll also find an ongoing list of actions you’ve taken in Google apps—like searches in Gmail or navigations within Google Maps—along with actions you’ve taken in certain third-party apps where you use Google to sign in.
  • How to view what’s there: You can view your entire Google web and app activity history by following this link to Google’s My Activity site.
  • What you’ll lose if you disable it: Aside from the obvious ability to find and revisit past searches and activity, maintaining this treasure trove of data allows Google to give you more personalized results in a variety of places—from autocompleting your searches to helping you follow subjects you’ve previously explored in places like Google Assistant and Chrome’s suggested stories.
  • How to adjust or disable it: You can turn web and app activity collection on or off by flipping the switch on this page of Google’s Activity Controls site. As of this month, you can also opt to take a more nuanced approach and have Google keep that data only on a cycling 3- or 18-month basis by going to this page and selecting the “Choose to delete automatically” option.
You can now limit how long Google stores your web and app activity without turning the option off entirely.

2. Your location history

  • What it does: Whether you realize it or not, Google—given the permission—keeps a log of your every physical move by way of that smartphone in your pocket (at the system level with Android and via the Google app on iOS). It quite literally plots everywhere you’ve ever gone on a map and maintains records of your most visited places over time.
  • How to view what’s there: You can find the aforementioned map and look through your entire Google location history on Google’s official Maps Timeline site.
  • What you’ll lose if you disable it: Well, the feeling that you’re always being followed, for one thing. Creepiness aside, Google’s location history allows the company to provide you with personalized recommendations for places you might like to visit, based on your past preferences, and it paves the way for predictive alerts about commute times to locations you frequent and warnings about heavy traffic along paths you’re likely to take.
  • How to adjust or disable it: You can shut down location history entirely by turning off the toggle on this page of Google’s Activity Controls site. You can also opt to disable data collection only from certain devices by clicking the downward-facing arrow next to the words “Devices on this account” on that same page and then unchecking the boxes next to any individual devices in the list. (Google is expected to roll out more nuanced options for allowing location history data to be stored for limited periods of time—similar to what’s available now for web and app activity—at some point in the near future.)

3. Your voice and audio activity

  • What it does: Anytime you talk to a device associated with your Google account—be it a Google Home or Smart Display device, a smartphone or Chromebook (either via “Hey Google” or “Okay Google” activation prompt or by tapping a Google-connected microphone icon anywhere on the device), or even just a regular old Google search prompt (which almost always has a microphone icon inside of it these days)—everything you say to Google is recorded, logged, and kept eternally.
  • How to view what’s there: You can find transcriptions and listen to actual recordings of all your uttered voice commands by following this link to Google’s My Activity site.
  • What you’ll lose if you disable it: You won’t be able to use voice activation (“Hey Google” or “Okay Google”) on your phone—though as far as I can tell, those commands will still work on any Home or Smart Display devices. Other than that, Google says disabling the feature will limit its ability to learn the way you say certain words and to improve its speech recognition. But you’re unlikely to notice any immediate effect from that change.
  • How to adjust or disable it: You can turn voice and audio activity off by hitting the big blue switch on this page of Google’s Activity Controls site.
Everything you’ve ever said to Google is stored indefinitely in your account.

4. Your YouTube watch and search history

  • What it does: Every single time you watch or even search for something on YouTube, the video or query gets logged, stored, and permanently associated with your account.
  • How to view what’s there: You can look back on years of potentially embarrassing video streams by following this link to Google’s My Activity site. Your YouTube searches, meanwhile, are accessible at this link.
  • What you’ll lose if you disable it: Google uses your YouTube history to provide video recommendations, search suggestions, and also an easily accessible list of videos you’ve watched in the past. With the options disabled, YouTube will basically be a blank slate every time you open it—for better or for worse.
  • How to adjust or disable it: You can opt out of YouTube watch history by turning off the toggle on this page of Google’s Activity Controls site. The search history is controlled by a separate toggle on this page.

5. Your ad personalization profile

  • What it does: Google uses all the data it has on you to maintain a profile of who you are, where you go, and what sorts of subjects you’re interested in. That profile (without any personally identifying information) is then shared with advertisers who use the knowledge to serve up ads that—in theory, at least—are relevant to your interests.
  • How to view what’s there: You can see your full Google ad personalization profile on the company’s Ad Settings site. Get ready to learn some fascinating things about yourself (or who Google thinks you are, anyway).
  • What you’ll lose if you disable it: You’ll still see ads in Google services and on websites that use Google’s ad products; the ads will just be more generic rather than reflecting subjects you’ve searched for, the places you’ve gone, the websites you’ve visited, and so on.
  • How to adjust or disable it: Flip the switch at the top of this page. You can also click on any specific item on that page to turn it off individually. If, say, Google thinks you’re interested in Taco Bell (as my account does, for reasons I’ll choose not to explore too closely) and you’re sick of seeing ads about chalupas, that lets you tweak your profile without shutting the system off entirely.
Google maintains a detailed profile of your (alleged) traits and interests, but you can take complete control of it.

6. Your shared endorsements

  • What it does: When you follow or review a business on Google or in a Google app, Google might use your name, photo, and any remarks you made to promote the associated business or its products as part of an ad. Yikes!
  • How to view what’s there: There’s no simple way to see what, when, or how Google has used your info in this manner.
  • What you’ll lose if you disable it: Nothing, really—other than the knowledge that your name, face, and words might be used in a random company’s self promotion.
  • How to adjust or disable it: Uncheck the box at the bottom of this page on Google’s My Account site.

7. Your third-party app connections

  • What it does: When you authorize an app, add-on, or extension to access your Google account, you may give that program (and by association, its developer) the ability to see certain types of data from your Google account.
  • How to view what’s there: Go to this page within Google’s My Account site and look through the apps listed there. Next to each app, you’ll see a general overview of what type of data it’s able to access. If you click on any app, you’ll be shown a more detailed breakdown of exactly what info it’s able to see and manipulate.
  • What you’ll lose if you disable it: Removing any app’s access to your account will stop that app from working—so if an app is something you still use and trust, you’ll likely want to leave it alone. But if you see something in your list that you don’t recognize or no longer use or feel comfortable with, removing its access is a good idea.
  • How to adjust or disable it: Click any app in the list on that same third-party apps page, then select the blue “Remove Access” button alongside it and confirm that you want to remove its access.

For even more next-level Google knowledge, check out my Android Intelligence newsletter.

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