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Google offers one of the most expansive set of free online services to its users. And the more you use those services, the better they get. But Google also tracks you—in a sometimes creepy manner—and collects data in copious amounts on things such as search queries, location history, and voice commands.
The data you produce is used by the tech giant’s huge and mysterious computation rigs to fulfill a number of purposes such as making its applications smarter, quicker and more responsive. But it also uses it to enhance its ad-delivery engine, one of its main sources of revenue.
On the surface, it all sounds good-natured and innocent. However, if you’re suffering from post-Snowden paranoia of big corporations collecting your data and sending it off to clandestine recipients, or if you’re trying to avoid some of the embarrassing episodes that others have endured, the good news is that you have control over what kind of information Google does and doesn’t collect.
Here’s how to stop Google from tracking you.
Deleting previous data
Google doesn’t brag about its data collection program, but it doesn’t keep it secret either. And to its credit, it has recently updated its settings hub to give you the My Activity page, where you can manage all of the information that it has gathered about you.
Here, you see a list of your Google Search queries and pages you’ve visited in a historical descending order. Items can be viewed individually or bundled, where they will be categorized based on topics and websites.
You can delete individual items (or bundles if you’re in bundle mode) by clicking on the menu link (the three vertical dots) next to them and selecting “Delete.” The menu link on the green bar that appears at the top of the results enables you to delete all the results for that specific date. For more control, you can click on the “Delete Activity by” link, which will enable you to select date ranges or delete the entire history.
The interface has some cool search and filtering features, but I’ll leave that for your own exploration.
Mind that search and browsing history is not the only information that Google is hoarding. It also collects information about your whereabouts, device information, and voice search history. If you’re interested in deleting those as well, you’ll have to click on the “Other Google Activity” link, which will give you access to the other types of data that Google has stored.
By clicking the “Visit” button under each one of the subsections, you can see and manage the history for that specific type of activity. So, for instance, if you want to delete your sound search history, click on the “Visit History” link in the “Google Play Sound Search History” section, and select the “Delete All” command.
Preventing data collection
Deleting Google’s cache of data is good, but it won’t prevent it from continuing to collect information in the future. To completely cut off the flood of data flowing into the ever-hungry maw of Google’s tracking engine, you’ll have to opt out of the data tracking program.
Back to the My Activity page, click on the “Activity Controls” link, which will take you to the settings page where you can select which type of data is collected.
Here, you can see activity settings for each of type of data that Google collects. You can enable or disable each of them by clicking on the toggle button that appears next to the title.
By default, Google has Web & App Activity tracking on but disables the location, device, and voice search history.
Clearing the ad settings
The final stage will be to clean up the ad-related information that Google collects about you. Google selects specific topics of interest based on your search and browsing habits in order to fine-tune its ad engine and display ads that are more likely to pique your attention and turn you into a customer.
Go to the Ads Settings page, where you can see how Google has profiled your activity.
On this page, you’ll see topics that Google thinks you’re interested in, based on information it has previously gathered from your browsing habits. By toggling off the “Ads Personalization” settings, you’ll be telling Google not to collect ad-related data about you.
A complementary measure would be to download and install the Double Click Opt Out Extension, which will let you permanently opt-out of Google’s ad tracking cookie.
Are we safe now?
I’m really not sure. No one can guarantee that there aren’t other monitoring and data-gathering engines working in the background. But at least we can say that we have more privacy than we did before.
Ben Dickson is a software engineer and founder of TechTalks. His work has been published by TechCrunch, VentureBeat, the Next Web, PC Magazine, Huffington Post, and Motherboard, among others.