At the close of Google’s developer conference last week in San Francisco, it was clear the company has set privacy as a priority — a challenging proposition for a company that makes most of its money from personalized ads. Ads can only be personalized by tracking your movements on the browser and within its products. So how will this work?
The key new privacy features will have to be activated. That means adjusting your settings across Google products, such as Chrome browser, YouTube, Maps and any other Google products and devices you use. Default settings will remain the same in most cases so it will be up to you to understand your options and choose the ones that make you feel most secure.
A word of caution before we jump into the specifics of how you can adjust your settings. Privacy is an emotional topic. For many people, it’s a fundamental right—we demand privacy! We don’t want any company or person “spying” on us! But step away from the drama and consider two benefits you receive from allowing your online activity to be tracked. For one, free access to services, and two, the convenience of these services “remembering” the websites you’ve browsed and the places you’ve gone. When you want to return, the website automatically pops up in your address bar as you begin to type or directions to that restaurant you liked so much are listed in your recent places when you launch Maps. It’s a trade-off and one you should consider before you make changes.
First up is the ability to set timers for how long you want Google to store certain types of data, including your web activity, or browsing history, and location history. You will only have two options--three months and 18 months--but it will save you from deleting this data manually, if and when you remember to do it. I like this one because it limits the amount of historical data that can be collected over time and still allows for the convenience of accessing recent information. Three months seems right to me. Once you reach the three-month mark, your web browsing and location history will be reset.
To set up these limits, tap or click on your photo, or initial if you have not added a photo, and then “Google Account.” This is your one-stop-shop for managing your settings. Under the “Make Google Yours” box, click the “Manage your data & personalization” link. Under “Activity Controls,” choose “Web & App Activity” and then “Manage Web & App Activity.” You’ll see a new button that reads “Choose to delete automatically.” Once you’ve made your selection, you’ll see a notice explaining when your data will be deleted. Confirm and you are all set. I do not yet have the same control for location data, but assume it will work in the same way. Make sure your Chrome browser is up to date to see these features as they roll out.
Next is the expansion of Incognito mode, which you may be familiar with in Chrome. It allows you to browse without having the sites you visit saved in your browsing history. This mode was extended to YouTube last summer, and now Google is in the process of adding it to Maps and Search on your phone.
Google is also making Incognito mode easier to turn on within your mobile apps—look for your photo in the upper right corner of a Google app, tap to open and then tap the man-in-the-hat icon to turn it on. Do the same thing to quickly switch back to a normal mode—or not, if you want to continue using an app without being tracked.
But Google’s increased privacy initiatives aren’t all dependent on your actions. For instance, the company said it will change the ways Chrome handles cookies, the little snippets of code that enable tracking. In its announcement, Google outlined a compromise for users who typically want the convenience of being able to automatically log in to a website, but prefer not to share their activity with a cascade of other websites. Google will allow only the site that originally set the cookie to access it; third parties will be blocked. No timeline yet, but this change will be a good one for users.
Finally, Google is also developing ways to keep data inside a device without accessing the internet by using more advanced artificial learning. “On-device machine learning powers everything from these incredible breakthroughs like Live Captions to helpful everyday features like Smart Reply,” Google’s senior director of Android, Stephanie Cuthbertson, said. “And it does this with no user input ever leaving the phone, all of which protects user privacy.”