How to use Google services without yielding too much of one's personal data

Knowing how Google uses your personal data and what’s the best way for you to minimise it.

Being a Google user is nothing short of a convoluted dilemma. On one hand, it’s nearly unimaginable for you to quit its services. And on the other, you know every one of your digital moves are constantly watched. Google has also made its presence indispensable and with all those heaps of data, gotten so far ahead that there are no reliable alternatives to the majority of its apps.

Simply cutting off access isn’t an option for you either since one of the reasons Google’s platforms are relatively more intelligent and capable is because of how much they know about you. Fortunately, what Google lacks in respecting users’ personal space, it tries to make up for it in transparency.

Google offers a wide range of controls that let you keep tabs on what you’re giving up. You have the ability to track the amount of data you’re feeding Google’s algorithms, delete the information you don’t want in its servers, and pause the settings which you think are crossing the line. While you obviously can’t pull the plug on every tracker, there are a few ways through which you can continue employing Google’s services without yielding too much of your data.

How to use Google services without yielding too much of ones personal data

A Google Pixel 3 XL authenticating a login. Image: Google

Learn Your Way Around the My Activity Dashboard

Your gateway to taking control of your relationship with Google is the My Activity dashboard. It’s where you’ll find each and every privacy setting you need and an exhaustive overview of what Google has collected from your devices so far. Here, Google clubs and dumps your activities from all of its services including YouTube, Search, Play Music, Android, and the rest.

Google’s My Activity dashboard can feel a bit overwhelming at first.

Google’s My Activity dashboard can feel a bit overwhelming at first.

Google’s My Activity dashboard can feel a bit overwhelming. Therefore, it’s imperative that you begin gradually and dive into the more advanced tools later.

Review and Delete the Entries You Don’t Want in Google’s Hands

Your first step should be to review the data Google has accumulated ever since you signed up for it. The dashboard lets you remove individual entries by simply tapping the three-dot menu beside them and clicking Delete.

Plus, you've got the option to clear data from a specific time period, product, or topic. There’s a tab on the left pane called Delete Activity By through which you can erase content from a duration. To do the same based on a topic or product, you have to click the search bar.

Doing so will reveal a comprehensive set of filters. Select the ones you want, enter the keyword, and hit search. For deleting all the results, press the three-dot menu present on the right of the search bar and click Delete Results.  

Soon, Google Will Auto-Delete Your Data For You

Google, in the coming weeks, will also auto-delete your data for you. The My Activity page will be soon updated with a new auto-delete setting through which you won’t have to manually go through it every few months. Once configured, your Google data will be automatically wiped in three or eighteen months. At the time of writing, though, the feature wasn’t live yet.

Choose What You Want Google to Monitor

The most dramatic alteration you can perform in your Google account, however, lies in the Activity Controls page.

Here's what the Activity Controls page will look like.

Here's what the Activity Controls page will look like.

The Web And App Activity matters the most and enables Google to cross-share your data between multiple services for a more contextually aware experience. Since products like the Google Assistant depend on these settings, disabling it will also prevent you from using the voice assistant.

You can, though, safely uncheck the box that says “Include Chrome history and activity from sites, apps and devices that use Google services”. This will essentially block Google from leveraging your browsing habits and the data it collects from third-party apps where you’ve turned on Chrome Sync. This won’t severely affect your experience with Google apps and let you continue interacting with Google Assistant as well.

Another setting you should consider switching off is Location History. This bans Google from actively monitoring your location (even when you have the location setting on an Android phone turned off). Although if you go ahead with this, you’ll lose personalized recommendations for places. I personally, however, haven’t found that to be a significant downside.

Web and App Activity under Activity Controls.

Web and App Activity under Activity Controls.

In addition, on Android devices, Google records your app usage. So it stores data such as which app you’ve launched when, how many times, and for how long to stitch behavioral patterns and bring appropriate updates for the operating system. Thankfully, you can turn this off with the Device Information option.

Similarly, Google offers switches for you to control how your data is extracted from the rest of its services. For instance, you can decide whether you’d like Google to hold a permanent copy of your voice interactions with the Google Assistant. You can pause your YouTube watch history, search keywords, and more.

Android Q: A Step in the Right Direction

Apart from these controls, Google has been actively working towards building a more safer Android. Over the years, Android has invariably fallen prey to more breaches and malware compared to its rivals. Even during the Facebook debacle, Google’s frail security measures allowed the social network to easily extract its Android users’ phonebook data -- a controversy Apple’s iOS was able to stay away from.

With the Android Q update, Google is adding a couple of privacy tools. One of them lets you know whenever any of your phone’s key components like the location is being accessed. On top of that, Android Q lets you grant conditional permissions which are revoked as soon as you leave the app.

Does It Matter, Though?

The age-old question of whether these changes will matter all that much, however, remains. Android still has a single-digit market share and except for a handful of phones, the majority of Android users will continue to use an outdated version for years.

Google’s annual developer conference for 2019 is just a day away now. Last year, the company introduced a series of updates to Android’s agreement and infrastructure. Especially with Project Treble, Google was able to offer an early preview of Android Pie on phones other than its own Pixel lineup. Hopefully, it will soon announce more stringent policies for software updates and rope in other, leading manufacturers such as Samsung for Project Treble as well.

The bigger concern, however, is Google’s quest to aggressively follow you around the internet. Even with these precautions, there’s a chance Google might still be tracking you if history is any indication. Last year, the company was caught collecting location data irrespective of whether the user had the Location History is switched off or on. Therefore, it’s safe to assume your privacy will always hang in the balance as long as you’re a Google customer. All you can do today is understand how your personal data is being abused and what’s the best way for you to minimise it.

The author is a freelance technology journalist from Ahmedabad. He tweets from @phonesoldier

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