GIVE YOURSELF A GOOGLE PRIVACY CHECK
Nathan Taylor explains how to stop the search engine from tracking your online activity.
Nathan Taylor’s guide on how to stop the search engine from tracking your online activity.
Unless you’ve been extra careful, it’s fair to say that Google knows you just about as well as you know yourself. The internet giant hoovers up vast amounts of information on millions of users, ostensibly to deliver better ads (or, more accurately, to sell that user information to advertisers in order to better target ads).
This is especially true if you have a Google account. When you’re logged into your Google account, Google will keep a permanent record of: Every search term you type into Google Every search result you click on Every YouTube search you perform and every video you watch Ads you click on A complete timeline of your movements by tracking your mobile’s GPS Every time you issue an ‘OK Google’ voice command Potentially any time you visit a page with embedded Google services (like maps) and your complete Chrome browser history (thankfully this last one is turned off by default).
This information is recorded and attached to your personal Google account permanently. But even if you don’t have a Google account or are not logged in, it will still gather information.
It records the IP addresses of people searching with Google and what they searched for. This data is kept for a period of time before being “anonymised” by deleting part of the IP address.
Its DoubleClick, AdSense and AdMob ad networks use tracking cookies and similar techniques to monitor app usage and movement between sites, too.
To its credit, Google does now give you tools to switch a good deal of that account tracking off — and that’s more than can be said for some of its competitors, such as Microsoft and Facebook. We’ll walk you through that process below, as well as give some extra tips for dodging Google’s tracking.
DISABLING TRACKING AND RECORDING
Google, thankfully, gives you the tools to delete your account records permanently, as well as turn off future tracking. You just have to know where to find the settings. Head to myactivity.google.com and log in. It’s here that you’ll see the every bit of data Google has associated with your account, plus you can delete your records and stop further tracking.
The first thing you want to do is delete the archives. This will remove every item
from Google’s record about your activity. Now, we need to say up front that we pretty much have to take it on faith that Google is actually deleting these records. The company has said that it does, although it notes that, in some cases, the records may still be stored on (offline) backup tapes and in archives.
Click on ‘Delete activity by’ on the left side of the page. Then under ‘Delete by date’, select ‘All time’ from the dropdown menu and click Delete. This will clear the records of your online activity up until now. You’ll be asked to confirm your choice.
Now it’s time to stop Google from gathering data in the future. Go back to the My Activity page, then click on Activity Controls on the left. This is where you can switch off all the logging that Google does.
Here, you will see a set of panels for different types of activity that Google records. There are panels for ‘Web & App Activity’, ‘Location History’, ‘Device Information’, ‘Voice & Audio Activity’, ‘YouTube Search History’ and ‘YouTube Watch History’. In each panel, there is a blue switch. With the exception of Location History (see the box at left for more on why), you’ll want to turn them all off, which Google calls “paused”. You’ll get a warning pop-up for each one.
The other exception you might make is watched YouTube videos. That’s actually useful, since it determines YouTube recommendations. Once you’ve done that, Google should stop recording your activity in your Google account. It does not stop IP logging of searches (we’ll get to that), and it will still keep some search information in cookies for the duration of a session, but your permanent account activity record will remain clean.
Now to stop the tracking that Google does regardless of your account settings or login status. First up, let’s stop those cookies and analytics.
The best way to do that is with a privacy add-on for your browser. There are a number that get the job done, but we’ve always liked Disconnect ( disconnect.me). Another solid solution is Ghostery ( www.ghostery.com). Installing these browser add-ons will block all tracking cookies from being sent by your browser. They also stop analytics and other tracking systems, like Facebook and Google widgets, from reporting your activity back to the mothership.
If you really want to kill ad tracking, you can also install uBlock Origin ( www.ublock.org, which we now prefer to Adblock Plus) which will stop your browser from communicating with ad services like DoubleClick altogether.
DODGING IP LOGGING
Finally, to deal with the fact that Google still links online searches with IP addresses, you can use a third-party search engine. If you still want Google’s search results, we recommend startpage.com. StartPage still gives you Google Search results. Except that it fetches those results for you like a proxy, so that you don’t give Google your IP address. StartPage itself claims that it logs no IP addresses or search terms — but again, we take that on faith.
With all Google account tracking turned off, with ad cookies and analytics disabled, with Google widgets blocked and by using a third-party search engine, you should now be mostly clear of the Google octopus.
Google does let you get a view of everything it has recorded about you.
Turn ’em all off. Except for watched videos. That one’s useful.
Delete everything, for all time. It’s the only way to be sure.
Disconnect blocks tracking cookies.