The Browser: Marketing Delight. User Fright?
The Data That Google Chrome Collects on You
You are a valuable commodity online, especially to Google Chrome. The most popular browser in the world commands 65.52% market share, well above any others. But if you use any Google product, every search term you enter, site you look at, log into or purchase from tells data collectors a bit more about you. Besides Chrome, Google shares your data across their entire ecosystem, including Google Maps, YouTube, Android, Ads, DoubleClick, Assistant, Shopping, Translate, News, Drive and Play.
Google uses this data to help advertisers and third parties show users relevant and targeted ads through Google products, on partner websites, and in mobile apps, hoping that you’ll bite. Browsing in private, or even disabling browsers from tracking you, can be a challenge.
By disabling tracking and data collection, your browsing experience may be different. Google says these tracking activities make your browsing experience more personalized and easier to log in next time. But let’s be real- they don’t want you to turn off tracking. As noted in my recent Scary Tech article, profit is the motive, not your convenience.
Information Being Gathered
Not only do browsers gather information about you, so do websites you visit and any connected apps. This data is more complete than just your search history. For example, sites can see how long you stayed on each page of a website, or a browser might save your username and password and other system information.
The risk of all this data collection is having your personal information compromised. Various location tracking methods detail where you are, and when you are not home. Chrome may use your personal information to create a profile for advertisers, but third parties may have a more nefarious purpose. This article details the value of things like your login and password or credit card information that may end up on the Dark Web.
How to Delete Saved Google Data
One nice thing about Google is that you can address all the data it has collected on you across related apps and change how data gets collected in the future through the Google Account dashboard. Here are some basic privacy steps to take on Chrome:
1. Access your Google dashboard. Once logged into Google, go to https://myaccount.google.com/dashboard to access your account dashboard. From there select Data and Privacy options, which should be on the left menu on desktop.
2. Stop (most) tracking. Navigate to the section titled “Things you’ve done and places you’ve been.” This is where all your Google searches and interactions with other Google apps and services get recorded. To stop Google from tracking these interactions, go to Web and App Activity, click the Turn Off button. A notice will pop up. Note that Google says in this note that they will still collect some data on you! Confirm your selection.
3. Eliminating tracking may cause some apps to glitch. Note that changing this setting will most likely make any Google Assistant devices you use, including Google Home and Google Nest smart speakers and displays virtually unusable. Before you invest in a smart home or security system, investigate the data it collects and stores, and other privacy issues.
4. Stop voice recordings. DO NOT check the box under sub settings to “Include voice and audio activities.” This will allow Google to save recordings of any voice interactions you have, including “Hey Google.”
5. Auto delete instead of no tracking. Optionally, you can choose to allow Google to collect, but automatically delete, your browsing data. Save options for the period time data is kept includes never, every three or 18 months. Once you choose an Auto-delete setting, a pop-up will appear and ask you to confirm. Select Deleteand Confirm.
6. Delete past activity. Go to myactivity.google.com. In the left column, choose the period you want to delete activity by. Select “all time” to delete all history. This will pop up a list of all the Google apps linked to this account. If you want Google to keep data on a specific app, uncheck the box. Then hit next. Verify under My Activity on the dashboard that your Web Activity is Off.
7. Repeat these steps for all Google accounts. If you have more than one Google account, i.e., different Gmail accounts, follow this same process for each account.
If you go to a website and a data collection notification pops up, this is asking you to accept “cookies,” or small text files sent to the website by the device you’re using. Don’t just breeze past this and accept!
Cookies aren’t necessarily all good or all bad. However, thanks to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), many U.S. companies now give you an option to choose what type of cookies you will accept. The best choice for privacy is “Only strictly necessary cookies,” which is usually mandatory. Deselect all others and confirm. Some sites may simply offer a button to select “Don’t sell my data.”
If you allow all cookies, a packet of info is inserted onto your browser where it can continue to track and collect data long after you left the website, sending that data back to the website owner. If you are ok with sharing everything you do on the internet, cookies can create a more curated advertising experience. So, if you search for a yoga mat, you’ll see yoga mats and other related wellness gear and services for days.
First party cookies- the ones related to a site you visited- can help a site remember you and tailor offerings to your personal interests. However, third-party cookies are another matter. Third-party cookies are sold from the first-party website to third parties. You won’t know who those third parties are, but they could receive personal information such as the name of the website you visited, the pages you looked at, your location, shopping cart items, and even your account log-in information.
How to adjust cookies: In Chrome, select the three little dots in the upper right-hand corner. Navigate to settings, then click on privacy and security from the left menu, then select “Cookies and Site Data” from the menu. The suggested settings are:
- Block third-party cookies (check this item).
- Clear cookies and site data when you close all windows (toggle to on).
- Send a “Do Not Track” request with your browsing traffic (toggle to on).
- Turn off “Preload Pages for faster browsing and searching (toggle to off).
You can also add sites here to allow cookies (whitelist) or restrict a site from individually collecting any cookies. If a site does not allow you to adjust cookies to disallow such marketing activity as providing your data to third party “partners,” you can whitelist it if you really want to, or just consider not patronizing it at all.
Privacy Extensions for Chrome
There are privacy settings you can add to Google Chrome, including these browser extensions:
Cookie Autodelete–Allows you to control your cookies. Automatically delete unwanted cookies from your closed tabs while whitelisting other sites to keep the ones you want.
uBlock Origin–this efficient content blocker will enhance tracking and ad blocking, as well as malicious URLs.
Privacy Badger–Instead of keeping lists of what to block, Privacy Badger automatically discovers trackers based on their behavior and learns what to block.
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Other Privacy Settings
Disable search engine autocomplete features. This is another opportunity for a browser to insert data collection cookies. To disable in the Chrome dashboard, navigate to You and Google> Sync and Google Services> Autocomplete searches and URLS (toggle to off).
Safe Browsing – Navigate to Privacy and Security. Ironically Chrome’s “Enhanced protection” collects more of your data! I recommend selecting “Standard protection” here, and also using a third-party antivirus/malware software that does not collect your personal data. Under Standard protection, toggle off “Help improve security on the web for everyone” to keep your information private. Do toggle on “Warn you if passwords are exposed to a data breach.” Under Advanced, toggle on “Use secure connections”, and “Use secure DNS.”
Do Not Save Passwords – Allowing Google to save passwords is risky. Google could have a data breach. Anyone who has access to your unlocked device could access your password list in three clicks (something I have shown stunned students in my intro to web browsing class).
Previous articles have outlined the wisdom of using a password locker like LastPass.
After navigating on Chrome settings to Autofill> Password Manager, collect your login and password data and move it over to a password locker. Then, delete each saved password individually by clicking on the three dots to the right of each password line.
Using a VPN–Using a virtual private network (VPN) is a good idea, especially when conducting financial transactions. However, you must sign out of Google when using a VPN, or Google’s tracking behavior will override VPN settings in most cases.
There are also browsers specifically designed to protect privacy, though they will not deliver the smooth, interconnected service of Google Chrome.
Among alternate browsers, DuckDuckGo has been around a long time and is popular with privacy minded users since it does not track user searches. However, giving up that valuable tracking means search results are not as robust as Chrome.
Visit HTTPS Sites
When browsing online, do everything you can to ensure the site you’re visiting is safe and legitimate. This is especially true if entering payment information or other personal data. Look for the “S” in HTTPS at the beginning of the website URL. Alternately, look for a closed padlock symbol next to the URL.
Chrome now has a way to “force” each site you visit to be HTTPS. This will protect you against many forms of surveillance and account hijacking, and some forms of censorship. Visit https://eff.org/https-everywhere/set-https-default-your-browser for instructions.
If you are still uncertain about the security of a website, visit Google Safe Browsing Transparency Report. Paste the site URL into a field, and see a report on whether you can trust that website.
More Online Privacy Steps
This article focused on Google Chrome, but I strongly recommend you look at the privacy settings in the apps you use most.
A tremendous source of privacy breaches are with social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram. After logging into your social account, go Meta’s Privacy Center, examine each area and make changes. After updating your Chrome privacy settings, many of these options will look familiar.
Working, playing and shopping online is part of our daily lives. It chagrins me that we must give up some functionality to keep our own data private. Until the U.S. adopts a universal data privacy act like GDPR, knowing how your browser and connected apps affect your privacy, and taking steps to limit the abuse, will enhance your online security.