If there’s anyone who knows you better than you know yourself, it’s Google.
The search engine/information empire has become so much a part of our lives, it’s almost invisible. The fact that we use “Google” as a verb now just shows how reliant we are on it.
However, just because Google’s services are free and convenient doesn’t mean they don’t get anything from you.
Google collects a massive amount of data on its users, in a truly frightening level of detail. Not just searches but buying patterns, devices, home and work address, places you’ve traveled to…
Most of this data is used to try to sell you stuff, hence those annoying “targeted” ads that follow you around the internet after you visit a site. It also can potentially be submitted to the government as part of an investigation.
Whether you’re concerned about your privacy and security or just plain creeped out, it’s good to know there are ways to get out of Google’s reach. Check out these tips, ranging from the simplest to the strongest, for protecting your information online.
Change your Google privacy settings
Perhaps in response to growing concern about privacy, Google now allows users to view some of the information that it collects, and you can change your settings to (supposedly) block it from tracking you.
First, check out My Activity. Here you’ll find a complete record of what you’ve searched for, websites you’ve visited from searches and more.
If you want to have a clean slate, click on the three vertical dots on the right-hand side of the menu bar on the top of the screen. From here you can select “Delete Activity By” and clear your history according to date or keyword.
Next, go to “Activity Controls” to reduce what Google will collect about you from now on. There will be six sections: Web & App Activity, Location History, Device Information, Voice & Audio Activity, YouTube Search History and YouTube Watch History.
Go into each one of these and pause them.
Google collects all of this data to give you better autofill and recommendations (among other reasons). If you opt out, you will be sacrificing some level of convenience. Whether or not that convenience is worth your privacy is up to you.
Also, I can’t say for certain whether pausing these features really puts you off the map or just keeps the record from being stored on your computer while leaving it available for Google itself and third parties to see. (This is the problem with searching in Incognito mode, for example.)
So if you want real privacy, I recommend you take your activity off Google altogether.
Use a private search engine
There are many search engines that do not track users or store data.
Some of the most popular and safest search engines like this are DuckDuckGo, Ixquick and the up-and-coming MyPrivateSearch.
MyPrivateSearch is great because it allows you to search through Google or Bing, getting the full range of results you want, but your search is redirected to a secure page. Its design is clean, simple and easy to use.
You might notice a few differences when using a private search engine instead of the mainstream commercial services.
When you use Google, it puts you inside what the creators of DuckDuckGo call a “filter bubble.” That search page looks so neutral, but it’s actually tailor-made to your user profile. It feeds you the results which it thinks you’ll be most interested in based on your past activity, not necessarily the best or most accurate.
With a search engine that doesn’t track you, you’re putting yourself outside the bubble. It can be interesting to see what a different view of the internet you’ll find.
Use a VPN
VPN’s (virtual private networks) are a simple way to protect your online privacy.
A VPN routes all of your internet traffic through a third-party server. That way your IP address is hidden and Google will instead see only the VPN provider’s address.
There are plenty of VPN services to choose from, offering different features and levels of privacy. Most of them cost less than $10 per month.
IPVanish, for example, is a top choice for its high speeds and high level of security.
Keep in mind though that a VPN won’t make you totally untraceable. The IP address from the VPN service will still be visible, and your activity could potentially be connected as belonging to a single individual.
However, there is no way to identify it with your offline identity.
For people who are serious about privacy and slightly more tech-savvy, there’s always TOR. This anonymous alternative to the mainstream internet is called The Onion Router for its many layers of online security.
It basically relays your information through an encrypted global network of connected computers. Since there’s no way to see beyond one computer back in the chain, it’s virtually impossible for your activity to be traced back to you. (Check out this article for a more in-depth explanation of how it works.)
TOR has a bit of a bad reputation as a haven for hackers and drug traffickers, but there are legitimate reasons to use it. If you’re a journalist or activist, for example, or you live in a country with an oppressive government, it might be a lifesaver.
It can also help you get around censorship laws and keep your data out of advertisers’ hands.
It’s pretty easy to download and use it. However, it might be a bit of overkill for the average person who simply wants to keep their personal information to themselves. If that’s you, it’s probably best to just use a private search engine and other Google alternatives.