Google will automatically remove location and search histories by default for new users

On Wednesday, Google announced major changes to its default data practices for new users, including a significant expansion in the company’s willingness to automatically delete data.

In a blog post announcing the changes, CEO Sundar Pichai emphasized the company’s commitment to privacy, security, and user choice. “As we design our products, we focus on three important principles: keeping your information secure, treating it responsibly, and putting it in control,” Pichai wrote. “Today we announce privacy enhancements to help achieve this.”

Google’s automatic deletion feature applies to search history (on the web or in the app), location history, and voice commands collected through the Google Assistant or devices like Google Home. Google records that data on its My Activity page, where users can see which data points have been collected and manually delete specific items. Historically, Google has withheld that information indefinitely, but in 2019, the company launched a way to automatically delete data points after three months or 18 months, depending on the configuration chosen.

Starting today, those settings will be enabled by default for new users. Google will configure web and app searches to be automatically removed after 18 months, even if users take no action. Google location history is disabled by default, but when users turn it on, an 18-month deletion schedule is also set by default.

The new defaults will only apply to new users, and existing Google accounts won’t see any changes to settings. However, Google will also promote the option on the search page and on YouTube in an effort to entice more users to examine its automatic removal settings. Automatic deletion can be activated from the Activity Controls page.

The system also extends to YouTube’s history, although the default will be set to three years to ensure that the platform’s recommendation algorithms can use the broader data.

In some ways, the new configuration represents a compromise between the privacy interests of users and the commercial interests of Google as an advertising network. The most recent user data is also the most valuable as it can be used to target people who have recently become involved with a particular product. By maintaining the last 18 months of activity, Google can retain most of the value of that ad while removing most of the data that would otherwise be available.

Along with the new default settings, Google will also make it easier for users to use Chrome’s incognito mode, allowing mobile users to switch to incognito mode with a long press on their profile picture. The feature launches today on iOS and will soon hit Android and other platforms.

Google announced an expansion of the password verification tool earlier this week.