Sam Holstein

How To Keep Google From Collecting Your Data

By this point, we are all aware that the big companies — Facebook, Google, Amazon — are collecting our data. Like, all of our data.

This is definitely a huge problem over the long term — how will that data get used, and by whom? Will it undermine our freedoms, or as some people have started saying, our government?

They’re big questions, but I’m not tackling those right now. This article is a how-to dedicated to a smaller question — how can I, as an individual, stop contributing to the problem?

I used to not care about data collection — how could having advertisements that are more relevant to me hurt? — but the more I read about behavioral psychology, the more I realize the way tech is designed keeps us from exercising our free will.

But convincing you is a task for another day. If you’re like me, and you don’t think tech giants are stewarding your data properly…

How can I keep Google from using my data?

The simplest way, of course, is to delete your Google Account. But the fact of the matter is that Google Accounts are nearly indispensable in today’s tech environment. Instead of having you delete your account, this article teaches you how to neuter your Google Account, so you can still have it without it being a data-collecting threat. Otherwise, you’ll inevitably end up creating one when you need one — and that account won’t be neutered…

The following guide is written with iPhone users in mind. Google functions, like location history, are much more central to the operation of Android phones. I am not familiar with how they affect Android phone functionality. If you have an Android, proceed with caution.

Part 1: Stopping Them From Collecting More Data

The first thing to do is stop them from collecting more data. There are two places where you can turn off how Google tracks you: Activity Controls and Ad Settings.

Activity Controls

Google keeps track of your Web & App Activity, Location History, Device Information, Voice & Audio Activity, and your YouTube Search & Watch History. This page is where you turn tracking for all those things off.

They have to be turned off here — when you turn them off on your phone, you’re not globally disabling location services, just telling Google that they can’t always track your phone all the time. It’s in the small print.

Ad Settings

Google is, first and foremost, an advertising company. Their goal is to serve you the best ads possible. Best, here, means the ads that are most likely to trigger you to buy something. They do this through personalized ads to your exact situation. Take away the ability to personalize ads, and you take away their mind-control powers over you.

Along with turning off Ad Personalization, you should turn off Shared Endorsements. When you see an ad that says “Your friend so-and-so uses this product,” that’s a shared endorsement. You don’t want to promote a consumerist world where we identify with what we and others have bought, so go ahead and turn this off.

Privacy Checkup

This is a walkthrough tool Google has to help you set your privacy settings. It covers Activity Controls and Ad Settings and walks you through other privacy settings Google has for individual services like Photos and YouTube.

Security Checkup

While you’re here, go through security checkup. Delete any devices and applications that aren’t familiar or out of date, and remove any app permissions that no longer need them.

Part 2: Deleting The Data They Already Have

Get Backups with Google Takeout

It’s romantic to just go in there and hit delete, but the fact of the matter is that I have a lot of digital data I want to keep in my own personal records for old time’s sake, and I know you might be the same way. So before deleting anything, make sure to get backups. Google, not being totally evil, has created a nifty tool for this called Google Takeout. Before getting started, make sure to grab backups of anything you want to keep.

My Activity

Google keeps an internal timeline of all the data they have on you in a feed called My Activity. From here, you can see everything they’ve collected.

To delete it, navigate to the right-hand column where it says ‘Delete Activity By…’ Select All Time, and hit delete.

My Services

Google has a menu where you can see all the services you’ve got connected to your Google Account.

This is where it gets a bit complicated. The process for deleting your data is different for every Google service. Google has made it as easy as possible, by including a direct link to the settings page of every Google service, but not all services have a ‘batch delete’ function.

It’s different for every service. So go through all your services, and look up how to delete the data off of them (after downloading a backup with Google Takeout, of course).

Part 3: Don’t Use Your Google Account for More Than You Have To

I started this article by saying that Google accounts are indispensable. Inevitably, someone wants to share a Google Drive file with you, or signing up with Google is the only option available for service. But you shouldn’t use your Google Account for more than you absolutely have to.

I confess, I still use Google Maps regularly. Their traffic prediction is too good for me to give up. But with Location History turned off (and my entire account neutered), I feel as good about using it as I can. (Even so, I’ve set a repeating to-do to go into Google Activity and delete my data every so often).

After enabling all these options, you can use your Google services as normal and know they’re collecting a fraction of the data they were before. They’re still collecting data, of course, but this will stem the tide.

I am quite sure I’m missing out on ways to keep Google from collecting data. If you know of another privacy setting or measure to take to keep Google from tracking you, please reply to this article and let me know.