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How to Set Your Google Data to Self-Destruct

How to Set Your Google Data to Self-Destruct

Tuesday, 29 October, 2019 - 08:00
Glenn Harvey - The New York Times
London - Brian X. Chen
Last year you may have been addicted to Beyoncé. But nowadays you’re more into Lizzo. You also once went through a phase of being obsessed with houseplants, but have lately gotten into collecting ballpoint pens.

People’s tastes and interests change. So why should our Google data histories be eternal?

For years, Google has kept a record of our internet searches by default. The company hoards that data so it can build detailed profiles on us, which helps it make personalized recommendations for content but also lets marketers better target us with ads. While there have been tools we can use to manually purge our Google search histories, few of us remember to do so.

So I’m recommending that we all try Google’s new privacy tools. In May, the company introduced an option that lets us automatically delete data related to our Google searches, requests made with its virtual assistant and our location history.

On Wednesday, Google followed up by expanding the auto-delete ability to YouTube. In the coming weeks, it will begin rolling out a new private mode for when you’re navigating to a destination with its Google Maps app, which could come in handy if you’re going somewhere you want to keep secret, like a therapist’s office.

“All of this work is in service of having a great user experience,” Eric Miraglia, Google’s data protection officer, said about the new privacy features. “Part of that experience is, how does the user feel about the control they have?”

How do we best use Google’s new privacy tools? The company gave me a demonstration of the newest controls this week, and I tested the tools that it released earlier this year. Here’s what to know about them.

Once you get into the tool and click on Activity Controls, you will see an option called Web & App Activity. Click Manage Activity and then the button under the calendar icon. Here, you can set your activity history on several Google products to automatically erase itself after three months or after 18 months. This data includes searches made on Google.com, voice requests made with Google Assistant, destinations that you looked up on Maps and searches in Google’s Play app store.

Which duration should you go for? It depends on how much you care about getting personalized recommendations.

Let’s say you have been doing lots of Google searches on celebrities and movies. Google News will recommend news articles for you to read on those topics based on those searches. So if you’re steadfast about following celebrity and movie news, setting searches to delete after 18 months is probably a good option. If you’re more fickle about your interests, three months may be better.

If you’re the type who doesn’t care to get any personalized recommendations on Google products, you can simply disable search history from being retained in your account. Next to the Web & App Activity option, toggle the switch to the off position.


In the My Activity tool, click on Activity controls and look for the button for YouTube history. Click on Manage history and you will see a similar calendar icon, which lets you set YouTube history to delete after three months or 18 months.

To turn it on, open the Google Maps app and tap on the account icon in the upper-right corner. Then click Turn on Incognito mode.

This could come in handy in a few situations:

If you are meeting someone to discuss a sensitive business matter, Incognito mode will prevent the meeting location from being recorded.

Google Maps lets you constantly share your location with someone like your romantic partner. If you want your location to be kept secret, like when shopping for an engagement ring, you can turn on Incognito mode.

Let’s say you are driving and a member of your family is using the Maps app on your phone to navigate to a new address. Turning on Incognito mode will hide your past maps searches from that person.

Google now also includes an auto-delete option for location history. In the My Activity tool, click Activity controls, scroll to Location history and click Manage Activity. On the next page, find the icon shaped like a nut and then click Automatically delete location history. You can set data to self-purge after three months or 18 months.

For those who don’t want Google to create a record of their location history at all, there’s a switch for that. On the My Activity page, click Activity controls and scroll to Location history and turn the switch to the off position.

Just do it

In offering these privacy tools, Google is a step ahead of other internet giants like Facebook and Twitter, which don’t provide ways to easily delete large batches of dated posts.

Yet there’s no one-size-fits-all for how people should use Google’s privacy controls, since everyone has different lifestyles and levels of paranoia. To give an idea of how you can tailor these settings, here’s my personal setup:

I set my search history to auto-delete. I rarely use Google Assistant and don’t visit Google News, meaning I don’t benefit from personalized recommendations. But I’m often checking Google Maps, and it’s useful to have a recent history of those searches to revisit destinations. So I set Web & App Activity to automatically delete after three months.

I set my YouTube history to self-destruct. I go in and out of phases that involve cooking different types of foods, and I like it when YouTube surfaces new recipes based on recent searches. So I set my YouTube history to auto-delete after three months.

I set my location history to auto-delete, too. I use Google Maps regularly, and I go on big trips twice a year. It’s useful for me to let Google know where I have been recently so that its Maps app can load relevant addresses and remember places I have been. But it’s not useful for Google to continue to know that I went to Hawaii last month for vacation. So I set my location history to auto-purge after three months.

It’s difficult to imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to take advantage of Google’s auto-delete tools. There’s no practical benefit to letting Google keep a history of our online activities from years back. So don’t delay in wiping a tiny bit of your digital traces away.





The New York Times

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