Take Charge of Your Google Privacy Settings

Computer and smartphone with Google-like apps behind a settings-icon

Google privacy checkWe’ve all had the experience of searching for a product on Google, only to have advertisements for that product appear everywhere you look online for the next several days. Targeted advertising is Google’s primary source of income. Google further improves its data about you to provide better information to advertisers. They do so by monitoring your location through the Google App and Google maps. Moreover they note which YouTube videos you search for and watch, and much more. In fact, the amount of information Google can compile about you, is staggering. Monitoring and adjusting your Google privacy settings is one way to secure your privacy online.

Privacy Concerns and Google

In a recent commentary posted on CNBC, the CEO of Duck Duck Go, a search engine for those concerned about privacy, pointed out the vast amount of information Google collects on its users. Most websites have Google trackers hidden in the site, which allows Google to track you not only when you are on the Google webpage, but across almost all websites you visit in a day. You may think this is just a competitor scaring people, but the numbers back him up. U.S. Congress has taken almost no action on placing restrictions on Google’s ability to vacuum up truckloads of information on its users. By and large, Google regulates itself for privacy issues. While maintaining a good public image is important to Google, it generates revenue almost entirely from targeted advertising. How much does that influence Google’s decisions? And what does it tell us that Google has just removed “Don’t Be Evil” from their Code of Conduct.

Finding Google’s Privacy Settings

As you might have noticed Google’s Privacy Policy changes from time to time. The company has made it easy to access the settings and controls you need to manage your privacy settings – if you know where to go! Below you can find out what adjustments you can make to the settings to enhance your privacy.

One of the first places to visit is Google’s Privacy page. Here Google lays out how they use the information they collect to improve your experience on the internet and make your life easier. Of course, they also sell that information to advertisers. It is up to you to make decisions about the information you will share, and what you prefer to keep private. However, using Google will always cost you.

Google account welcome

From the Privacy page, you can reach the “My Account” page which will allow you to begin tweaking your privacy settings. One of the most prominent areas of this page is the “Sign-in and Security” section. Here you can change your password and monitor what devices have been used to sign into your Google account. Updating your password with a strong combination on a regular basis is a good security measure.

Privacy checkup smallYou will also see an area marked “Privacy Checkup”. This will walk you through the various privacy options you can change in Google. Clicking “Get Started” will start the process of updating your Privacy Settings.

What Settings can you Change?

On the Privacy Checkup page you can adjust the settings to your preference. Not only does this provide you with the chance to gain more privacy, it also shows you what types of data Google collects. Below you can read about all the different sections and how you can adjust the settings. You will find that Google collects information on everything from the things you search for to the places you’ve visited.

Web and App Activity

Google routinely monitors the sites you visit on the internet while using the Chrome browser. Moreover, they keep track of the apps you use on your phone, the types of things and places you search for, and more. When you start to type a web search or internet address, Google offers suggestions that could complete your search. Those suggestions come from analyzing your profile. This makes your surfing faster and more intuitive.Google shares this information across all your devices and between apps such as Chrome, Maps, Google Assistant, and others.

To change this behavior, you must click on “Manage Web & App Activity”, from the next screen click on “Change Setting”. On the next screen you can finally turn this option off, or limit which apps Google can collect information through.

Web activity

Location History

Google’s use of your location history may be one of the most disturbing features of Google for those who are concerned about their privacy. The company can predict whether you are riding a bike, walking, or in a car based on your location information. Google also tracks you through Wi-Fi nearby, and can track you through Bluetooth – even if you have Bluetooth turned off. In exchange, Google will provide information about traffic on your usual routes and targeted ads based on your location. Google does this by analyzing your usual routes which would include your home address, workplace, where you drop your kids off at school, and your favorite bar you hit up after work.

Google insists they do not sell this information to advertisers. However, if you search for a restaurant nearby, it uses your location to make better suggestions. This certainly makes advertising through Google more valuable for businesses.

If you prefer to turn Google’s location tracking off, from the “Privacy Checkup” screen, click on “Manage Location History”. This will take you to a map showing every place you have visited. From there click on “Manage Location History” and you will finally arrive at a screen where you can disable Google’s location tracking.

Location History

Device Information

The Device Information allows Google to recognize names of contacts in your phone, recognize events in your calendar, and what apps you use. Google uses this information to recognize when you ask it to call a contact you have stored. To turn this feature off, click on Manage Device Information, then click Change Setting to arrive at the screen where you can disable this information.

Device info

Voice and Audio Activity

When you say, “Hey Google”, this triggers the Google assistant to listen up and obey whatever commands come next. To be ready to hear you anytime you give commands, your device must be constantly listening for those trigger words. There are alternatives, though. You can restrict Google Voice to only listening when you trigger it with a specific action. For example, you may hold the home button to pull up the assistant and listen for a command.

Google also records your voice to make it easier for the app to understand you. If this isn’t a feature you prefer to have turned on, from the “Privacy Checkup” window, click on “Manage Voice & Audio Activity”. From the “Voice & Audio Activity Screen”, click on “Change Setting”. This will bring up a screen where you can turn the voice recording feature off.

Voice activity

YouTube Search History and Watch History

When you think of the Google search engine, you probably have in mind the Google.com screen where you conduct most of your searches. However, YouTube, a Google program, has over a billion users itself. Everyday millions of users search YouTube for information, how-to videos, entertainment, and more. Google records the data and uses it to help create “more personalized experiences across Google services.” This means a YouTube search will ripple across all Google services you use to create a more personalized profile of your likes and dislikes.

You can manage your data and turn off this feature to keep your personal information more private. From the “Privacy Checkup”, click on “Manage YouTube Search History”. This will take you to the activity page, where you can delete YouTube searches from your record. While there isn’t a way to erase all searches at once, you can click on the three dots next to the date and click delete to erase all searches from that day. You can also search for things you have searched for that you would like deleted for your record. Up at the top, type in “Justin Bieber” to find every time you searched for Justin Bieber. You can then delete each of those searches to hide your love for Bieber – from Google at any rate.

Click on “Change Settings” and you will come to a screen to stop Google from recording your searches in the future. In much the same way, Google keeps a record of the videos you watch on YouTube. From the “Privacy Checkup” screen, click on “Manage YouTube Watch History”. This will take you to the activity screen where you can search for and delete YouTube videos you have watched from Google’s record. Click on “Change Setting” to stop Google from tracking future videos you watch on YouTube.

YouTube history

Other Steps to Protect Your Privacy

Google’s reach across the internet is pervasive, and most of us have come to rely on the services Google provides. This makes it almost impossible to avoid having Google track some of your information online. There are some things you can do to reduce your footprint in Google in addition to the steps listed above. Spreading your web searches across different search engines helps keep any one company from creating a total picture of who you are. Using different browsers to access different types of information can also help muddle your information online. If you take your privacy seriously, you might even consider these alternatives to various Google products.

Using a VPN to connect to the internet can put a middleman between you and the information you search for online. Simply doing internet searches, YouTube searches, and browsing through a VPN can restrict the information Google is able to collect about your habits online. Consider signing up for a quality VPN service to help safeguard your privacy.

View Best VPN Services

Remember that this will not work if you are signed in on any of your Google accounts. This includes things like YouTube and Gmail. However, by changing the settings of your Google account you can already limit what Google knows about you! It’s not just Google you need to worry about. Other platforms like LinkedIn also store lots of information about you. Here’s how to delete your LinkedIn account.

Tech journalist
Tove has been working for VPNoverview since 2017 as a journalist covering cybersecurity and privacy developments. She has broad experience developing rigorous VPN testing procedures and protocols for our VPN review section and has tested dozens of VPNs over the years.