It’s difficult to avoid Google apps, but using them doesn’t necessarily mean handing over all your data and online activity to the tech giant—you can still work within the Google ecosystem while maintaining a respectable level of privacy.
Your options vary depending on the app you’re using, but Google also provides a central dashboard you can use to see the information it holds about you—and wipe it from the record.
Gmail has recently made it easier for users to personalize their experience. For the smart features in Gmail to work—the quick replies it suggests at the bottom of emails, for example, or the way it sorts your messages into important and unimportant buckets—it needs to scan the contents of your inbox. It needs the same sort of access to your emails for features linked with the Google Assistant, such as reminding you about restaurant reservations.
From the Gmail app on Android or iOS, tap the menu button (top left), then Settings, and your email address. The next screen enables you to turn off the Smart features and personalization and Smart features and personalization in other Google products options. Open up the settings page for Gmail on the web by clicking the gear icon and then See all settings. Under the General tab, you’ll find options for turning on or off Smart Compose, Smart Compose personalization, and Smart Reply.
The main feature you need to know about in Google Maps is called Location History. This keeps track of where you’ve been so Google can help you retrace your steps, learn more about the places you like, and make better recommendations about where you might want to go next.
If you’d rather not have Google Maps recording your travels in this way, open up the app on Android or iOS and tap your profile picture (top right), then Settings and Personal content. The next menu has options for turning Location History on or off, and for deleting all or some of the locations Google has collected so far. If you’re using Google Maps on the web, open the menu (top left), then choose Your timeline and Manage Location History to access the same options.
If you like keeping records of places you’ve been or searched for, but want to temporarily use Google Maps in private, use the Turn on Incognito mode option that appears when you tap your profile picture in the Google Maps Android or iOS app. The app won’t record your trips or searches for timeline or personalization purposes until you turn incognito mode off again.
Google likes to collect a lot of information about you as you browse the web with Google Chrome, and it also syncs data such as browsing history, passwords, and bookmarks between devices for you. One way to temporarily stop this data gathering is to open an incognito mode window: Click the three dots (top right), then New Incognito Window.
Anything that happens while you’re in incognito mode is off the record, so you won’t see the pages you visit when you check your browsing history, or the queries you run in your search history, unless you log into Google within the incognito window. If you want to temporarily stop Google’s data collection, this is the option to use.
To put a more permanent block on Google’s information gathering, make sure you’re signed out of Google wherever possible, then disconnect Chrome from your Google account. Do so by clicking the three dots (top right), then choosing Settings and Turn off sync under the You and Google heading. You’ll have the option to clear your bookmarks, passwords, and browsing history from the computer at the same time.
You can wipe this browsing data at any time from the Settings panel via the Clear browsing data option, and if you do so while signed into your Google account in Chrome and syncing data across devices, it’ll get cleared from all of them.
These privacy options are available in Chrome on Android and iOS too. Tap the three dots at the corner of the browser window to launch an incognito tab, or to open the main settings menu, where you’ll be able to sign out of your Google account and browse with more privacy by choosing Sync and Google services.
To erase your browsing history on your mobile device (and anywhere else it’s being synced, if you’re signed into Google), tap History from the main app menu (the three dots), then select Clear Browsing Data.
YouTube keeps a close eye on what you’re watching in order to power its recommendation engine, as well as to build up a profile that advertisers can target. To temporarily pause this tracking in the mobile app, tap your profile picture (top right), then pick Turn on Incognito. This works the same way as it does in Google Maps and Chrome, letting you browse videos without YouTube logging any of them.
The option isn’t available on the web, but you can always open a normal incognito window—handy not just from a privacy point of view but also if someone else wants to queue up some videos on your device and you don’t want them to mess with your recommendations.
The next level is to sign out of YouTube, which will prevent Google from associating videos with your account until you sign back in. You can do this from the mobile app by tapping your profile picture, then your account name, then Use YouTube signed out. On the web, click your profile picture, then Sign out.
For control that’s a little more granular, YouTube also lets you temporarily pause or fully erase both your viewing history and search history on the video portal. On mobile, tap your profile picture then Settings and go to History & Privacy; on the web, click the menu button (top left), then History to access the same options. As with Chrome, if you’re signed into Google, these actions will apply across all your devices.
Other apps and more options
For a comprehensive overview of everything Google has saved on you, open your Google account on the web and click Data & personalization, then Manage your activity controls. This will give you access to a whole host of data, including the Location History and YouTube watching information we’ve already mentioned. You can delete individual entries, specific weeks worth of data, or the whole lot from this screen.
Uncheck the Include audio recordings button if you don’t want Google to hang on to recordings of the voice commands you give the Google Assistant, for example, or uncheck the Include your searches on YouTube box to stop Google from logging your YouTube searches on any device. If you don’t want Google to map your location over time from any app or service, toggle off the Location History switch.
Two more options you’ll see on this screen are Auto-delete and Manage activity. Use the former if you want Google to wipe particular types or every type of data from its records after three, 18, or 36 months (if you’re happy with Google keeping a limited amount of recent data, this is a handy feature). Via the latter option, you can view every bit of information Google has on you, split up by date and app, and delete it if necessary.
Finally, follow the Go to Ad Settings link to see what Google thinks you’re interested in—you’ll see ads based on these topics as you browse Google’s network and sites using Google ads, but you can remove anything that Google’s got wrong by clicking on it and choosing Turn off. It’s also possible to turn off ad personalization altogether using the toggle switch at the top.
These settings are available on mobile devices too: On iOS, look for the Manage your Google Account links inside Google apps such as Gmail and Google Maps; on Android, you can open up the main phone Settings screen, then choose Google and Manage Your Google Account.