A person using a laptop.

Over the past year, Google has rolled out a number of updates to its privacy and security settings. The company introduced a redesign to the Search home page that makes some settings easier to find. There's also a relatively new feature that automatically deletes some data Google collects, and it's now being turned on by default for new account holders.

Google's privacy and security settings can take a little explanation to understand and use effectively. Here's a guide to the most important ones.

Turn Off the Master Privacy Control

If you’ve been feeling guilty about neglecting your diary, you can rest easy: With a setting called Web & App Activity turned on, Google keeps one for you.

You can see this data for yourself, with granular details about your activity on Google products such as Search, Chome, Android, and Google Assistant. This includes your whereabouts, websites you've visited, the apps you've used on your phone, and your search history, along with detailed time stamps for all this behavior.

The Web & App Activity control is the company's most powerful privacy setting, and it does a lot more than you might think. Leave it on, and the company considers that consent to harness everything from your location data to your YouTube history. Web & App Activity even controls whether or not Google can use your credit card purchases to measure how well ads are working, as described in a 2018 Bloomberg article.

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Unfortunately, the setting also has built-in repercussions for those who want to turn it off.

As Google warns when you switch the feature off, toggling the setting could make Google services "less personalized," and it will disable certain useful features within products, including Maps and Google Assistant.

"That makes for a terrible user experience," says Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy for Consumer Reports. "It's bad practice for them to lump all these settings together and disincentivize protecting your privacy."

According to Brookman, the privacy boost is still worth the trade-off, and you can always switch the setting back on if you need to.

To turn it off: From any Google website, click the icon in the top right (you'll need to sign in first) > Manage your Google Account > Manage your data & personalization > If Web & App Activity is on, click on it > On the next screen, click the toggle, and hit Pause.

Turn Off Location History—for Real This Time

Google has a setting called Location History. The description once read: “With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored. When you turn off Location History for your Google Account, it’s off for all devices associated with that Google Account.”

However, in August 2018, Google users learned that the company continued to collect location data regardless of how they adjusted that setting.

The company has now changed the language describing Location History and tells users that they really can stop location tracking by turning off Web & App Activity as well.

Yes, that’s the same master privacy control described above. Here are the directions to switch off both settings.

To turn it off: From any Google website, click the icon in the top right corner > Manage your Google Account > Manage your data & personalization > If Location History is on, click on it > On the next screen, click the toggle, and hit Pause. Then do the same for Web & App Activity.

Set It and Forget It—Or Delete Data Now

As described above, toggling the Web & App Activity setting makes for a significant privacy boost, but it will disable some functions on certain Google products. 

If you want to leave the setting on, Google has a newer feature that will automatically delete some of the data the company collects after three or 18 months, depending on which option you pick. You can also opt to just erase the data manually.

Google has already extracted most if not all of the advertising value from the data by that point, so this isn't an ironclad way to protect your privacy from the tech giant. But it's better not to have personal information—like everything you've ever Googled—sitting on a corporate server.

After a recent update, this auto-delete feature is turned on by default when you create a new Google account.

Existing users, you'll need to turn it on manually.

To delete your Web & App Activity automatically: From any Google website, click the icon in the top right corner > Google Account > Manage your data & personalization > Web & App Activity > Auto-delete.

To delete your Location History automatically: From any Google website, click the icon in the top right corner > Manage your Google Account > Manage your data & personalization > Location History > Auto-delete.

To delete your Web & App Activity manually: From any Google website, click the icon in the top right corner > Manage your Google Account > Manage your data & personalization > Web & App Activity > Manage Activity > Click the icon with three dots in the search bar > Delete activity by > Choose a time period to delete, or select All time.

To delete your Location History manually: From any Google website, click the icon in the top right corner > Manage your Google Account > Manage your data & personalization > Location History > Manage Activity > Click the trash icon to delete all your location history, or use the tool in the top left to pick a specific time frame to delete.

Limit Data Sharing With Sites and Services

There are a number of reasons you might want to give third-party apps and services access to your data from your Google account. You may want to share your contacts with Twitter or LinkedIn, or give an app like Evernote access to files in Google Drive. You can also use Google Sign-in to log in to some apps and services instead of creating new accounts.

These arrangements are convenient, but they're also a privacy trade-off. For example, the company knows every time you use Google Sign-in to open another service, and it harnesses that data for advertising. It’s a good idea to periodically review which apps are connected to your Google account and remove permissions for services you no longer use.

To turn it off: From any Google website, click the icon in the top right corner > Manage your Google Account > Security > Manage third-party access > Click on the row with the app’s name and select Remove Access. Then do the same with apps under Signing in with Google.

Make Ads a Little Less Personal

Google uses the information it collects about you for targeted advertising. If you find irrelevant ads particularly annoying, you may prefer it that way. But for people who want to keep their internet habits to themselves, Google allows users to decouple their personal preferences from the ads they see online. This setting doesn't disable the Google advertising data machine entirely, but it's worth adjusting for a small privacy boost.

To turn it off: From any Google website, click the icon in the top right corner > Manage your Google Account > Manage your data & personalization > Go to ad settings > If Ad personalization is on, click the toggle > Turn off.

Safeguard Your Account From Hackers

One of the simplest ways to create roadblocks for hackers is to turn on two-factor authentication. Once you do that, Google will send you a verification code—via a text message or through an app, which is more secure—to confirm your identity anytime someone tries to log in to your account from an unverified location, device, or browser.

Once you turn on two-factor authentication, you can also add other safeguards, such as single-use codes you can print out and use if you don’t have access to your phone, and a physical security key that you can plug into your laptop’s USB port to confirm your identity rather than receiving a text message. (You need to buy one of the U2F, or universal second factor, devices separately.)

To turn it on: From any Google website, click the icon in the top right corner > Manage your Google Account > Security > 2-Step Verification > Get Started.

Give Chrome a Privacy Tuneup

When you log in to Chrome and sync with your Google Account, your browsing data are stored on Google’s servers and linked with your account. That includes the websites you go to, your bookmarks, and your saved passwords.

You can be logged into Chrome without syncing your data across devices. But starting in 2018, with a controversial update to the desktop version of Chrome, Google logs you into the browser by default when you sign in to Gmail or another Google service on a computer. 

In newer versions of Chrome, you can opt out of automatic sign-ins. 

"But if you worry about your privacy, you may also want to consider a different browser," says Bobby Richter, former program manager for privacy and security testing at Consumer Reports. Firefox, Opera, and the DuckDuckGo mobile browser are marketed as privacy-enhancing options.

To turn off Chrome's automatic sign-in: On a computer, click the icon with three dots in the top right corner > Settings > Sync and Google Services > Switch off the "Allow Chrome sign-in" toggle. (This will let you sign into an app such as Gmail without signing into the browser.)

If you've already logged in to Chrome, logging out is simple.

To sign out of Chrome: In Chrome, click the icon with your profile picture or first letter of your user name in the top right corner > Sign out. (The instructions are slightly different if you've already turned on Chrome's data syncing. In the same menu, click "Syncing to" and then hit "Turn off" on the next page to be signed out automatically.)

Or you can stay logged in while disabling some or all of Chrome's data-syncing functions.

To turn off Chrome’s sync settings: After signing in to Chrome, click the icon with three dots in the top right corner > Settings > Sync and Google Services > Manage sync > Switch off the “Sync everything” toggle > Switch off the toggles for some or all of the categories.


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