A person using a laptop.

Google has joined other technology companies on the hot seat over the past year, with sometimes troubling revelations about how the company handles user data and criticism of how it communicates with consumers.

Last fall, Google sparked criticism with a change to the settings in its Chrome browser. In January, French regulators announced they were fining Google close to $57 million for privacy violations under Europe's recently enacted General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. And on April 2, the search giant officially shuttered the consumer version of its Google+ social network after it discovered a security bug in late 2018.

During the same period, the company announced a number of updates to its privacy settings intended to simplify the controls available to consumers. Google introduced a redesign to the Search home page that makes some settings easier to find, and rolled out a new feature that will automatically delete some of the data it collects.

There are a number of simple steps you can take to protect your privacy and security on Google's products and services. Note that the layout and descriptions Google uses for some of the settings below have changed slightly in recent months.

Stop Google From Using Credit Card Data

Google has been trying to find ways to tell advertisers how well their online ads translate into real-world consumer purchases. One tool Google uses is Mastercard credit card data.

The partnership, described in a Bloomberg article last year, doesn’t include personal details about individual Google or Mastercard customers, according to both companies. “We do not sell individual transaction data,” says Seth Eisen, senior vice president for communications at Mastercard. “We never have and never will.”

More on Digital Privacy

A Google spokesperson told CR, “We do not have access to any personal information from our partners’ credit and debit cards, nor do we share any personal information with our partners.”   

However, if you don’t want your data included in Google’s analysis, the company says you can opt out of the program by turning off the Web & App Activity control.

Web & App Activity also affects other functionality, such as search history and location tracking, as discussed below. But 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 grid icon in the top right > Select "Account" (you may need to sign in first) > 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 used to 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 control described above. Here are the directions to switch off both settings.

To turn it off: From any Google website, click the grid icon in the top right > Select "Account" (you may need to sign in first) > 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

If you’ve been feeling guilty about neglecting your diary, you can rest easy: When you leave settings like Web & App Activity turned on, Google keeps one for you. Your “My Activity” page includes a detailed list of places you’ve been, websites you’ve gone to, the apps you've used on your phone, and your search history, along with minute-by-minute time stamps for all this behavior.

Turning off individual Activity Controls settings will limit new additions to this list. But as described above, that may also disable certain functions on some Google services.

Depending on how you use Google's apps, that may not actually be an inconvenience for you. But if you'd rather leave those services on, you can still go back and delete your activity history. You can delete all your prior activity history or choose a specific time frame you want to erase.

The easiest method is to set up a new tool that will delete that data for you automatically. Turn it on, and Google will erase your activity history every three or 18 months, depending on which option you pick. You can also delete the data manually or erase activity from a certain period.

To delete your activity automatically: From any Google website, click the grid icon in the top right > Select "Account" (you may need to sign in first) > Manage your data & personalization > Web & App Activity > Manage Activity > Choose to delete automatically.

To delete your activity manually: From any Google website, click the grid icon in the top right > Select "Account" (you may need to sign in first) > 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."

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. 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 grid icon in the top right > Select "Account" (you may need to sign in first) > 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.

To turn it off: From any Google website, click the grid icon in the top right > Select "Account" (you may need to sign in first) > Manage your data & personalization > Go to ad settings > If Ad personalization is on, click the toggle > Turn off.

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 Chome (starting with version 70, released in October 2018), you can opt out of automatic sign-ins. 

But Robert Richter, program manager for privacy and security testing at Consumer Reports, says, "If you worry about your privacy, you may also want to consider a different browser.” Firefox, Brave, and Opera 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 > Advanced > 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.

Protect 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—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 grid icon in the top right > Select "Account" (you may need to sign in first) > Security > 2-Step Verification > Get Started.

Protecting Your Online Privacy

It doesn't matter if you're on your phone or your laptop, your personal information can leave a digital trail of where you go online. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports' expert Thomas Germain explains to host Jack Rico what to do to protect your online privacy.