A person using a laptop.

Google has joined other technology companies on the privacy hot seat this fall, with sometimes disturbing revelations about how it handles user data. In response, the company has rolled out a number of changes to its privacy settings. 

First, Google countered a dustup over the sharing of personal information earlier this fall by changing settings in its Chrome browser. Shortly afterwards, the company introduced a redesign to the Search home page that makes some settings easier to find.

Here's your guide to using the most important Google settings for privacy and security.

Give Chrome a Privacy Tune-Up

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.

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

Version 70 of Chrome, released in October 2018, lets you opt out of automatic sign-ins. 

However, says Robert Richter, program manager for privacy and security testing at Consumer Reports, "If you worry about your privacy, you may also want to consider a different browser.” (Firefox, Brave, and Opera are all marketed as privacy-enhancing options.)

How 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.

How to sign out of Chrome: In Chrome, click the icon with three dots in the top-right corner > Settings > Sign out.

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

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

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, and over the past year, one tool Google has used to do that is credit card data collected by Mastercard. See an ad, get inspired to go to a store, and you could become part of a statistic in a corporate marketing report.

The partnership, described in a Bloomberg article, 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.”

A Google spokesperson tells 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 this off—toggling the setting could make Google services less personalized, and it will disable certain useful features within products like Maps and Google Assistant.

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

But according to Brookman, the privacy boost is still worth the tradeoff, and you can always switch the setting back on if you need to.

How to turn it off: Go to the Google Search home page > Click "Settings" > Your data in Search > Web & App Activity > If the "Web & App Activity" toggle appears in blue, click on it, then hit Pause.

Stop Location Tracking 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 it 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.

How to turn it off: Go to the Google Search home page > Click "Settings" > Your data in Search > Scroll down to "Google-wide controls" > See all Activity Controls > If the "Location History" toggle appears in blue, click on it, then hit "Pause." Then do the same for "Web & App Activity."

Limit Data Sharing With Other Sites and Services

You can use Google Sign-in to log in to other apps and services, such as LinkedIn and Twitter.

Sign-in makes it easy to give apps access to account data, such as your contacts, calendar, and files on Google Drive. And Google may get data from those other companies, too. The arrangement is convenient, but it’s also a privacy trade-off.

Even if you like using Google Sign-in, it’s a good idea to periodically review which apps have access to your Google account—and vice versa—and remove permissions for services you no longer use.

How to turn it off: Go to the Google Search home page > Click the grid icon near the top-right corner > Account > Sign-in & security > Manage Apps > Click on the row with the app’s name and logo > Remove Access.

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 targeted advertising. But for people who want to keep their fondness for expensive shoes to themselves, Google does allow users to decouple their personal preferences from the ads they see online.

How to turn it off: Go to the Google Search home page > Click "Settings" > Your data in Search > Scroll down and click on "Ad personalization" > If the "Ad personalization" toggle appears in blue, click on it, then hit "Turn off".

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—typically via a text message—to confirm your identity anytime you try 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.)

How to turn it on: Go to the Google Search home page > Click the grid icon near the top-right corner > Account > Sign-in & security > 2-Step Verification > Get Started.

Delete Your Activity History

If you’ve been feeling guilty about neglecting your diary, you can rest easy: 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 activity.

Turning off settings on the Activity Controls page will limit new additions to this list. You can delete all your prior activity history as well, or choose a specific time frame you want to erase.  

How to delete it: Go to the Google Search home page > Click "Settings" > Your data in Search > Google Activity > Click “Delete activity by” on the left-hand side > Select “All Time” from the menu under "Delete by date" > Delete.