Google’s automatic data deletion feature is now a default setting (sort of)

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Google is making it easy to delete the data it collects about you, although you may still have to do a little work to enable the feature.

The company announced Wednesday that automatic deletion will be the default setting for user account activity settings. That said, this “default” setting only applies to new accounts or existing accounts that now enable data retention after disabling it. And the default automatic deletion time still gives Google up to three years of your data, unlike manual automatic deletion settings that are only three months worth.

Google also announced that their account’s security and privacy settings will soon be accessible through its search page. You’ll also be able to switch to Chrome’s incognito mode in your apps more easily: just tap your profile picture for a second or two. Incognito mode allows you to surf the Internet “in private”, which means that Google Chrome will not save your history or cookies on your computer. However, this does not mean that the websites you visit or the server you use cannot see what you are doing.

Google’s announcement comes just a couple of days after rival Apple announced some new privacy features for its software. More on this in a second.

If you have a Google account and use Google products like Gmail, YouTube or Chrome, you have probably been logged in all the time. In this case, Google can track your activity while using those apps and services, which will then use that data to target ads, among other things. Over the years, Google has introduced privacy controls on the data it sends to the company, and has strived to make those features more obvious to users.

You can find most of these privacy controls in your account settings by clicking “Manage your data and personalization”. From there, you can click “Manage your activity controls.” This is the section where you can save your web and app activity, location history, and YouTube history if you want Google to use that data to provide you with what you call a “more personalized experience.” Or you can simply ask Google to save nothing and have an impersonal but more private experience.

If you decide that you actually want the personalized experience, you can still manually delete that data whenever you want, or set it to be automatically deleted after a certain period of time. With the recently announced changes, Google is trying to make it easier to enjoy the best of both worlds, both private and custom, by automatically removing the default settings for web and app activity, location history, and YouTube history.

And now, the other caveats. If you have an existing account that has these things turned on, and, except for location history, they’re turned on by default, you’ll still have to turn on automatic removal yourself. These default settings only apply to new accounts or existing accounts that re-enable data collection. Meaning that millions of users won’t have this feature enabled by default after all.

How to configure your Google data to be automatically deleted.

How to configure your Google data to be automatically deleted.

It appears that Google is also making a greater effort to notify existing users that they have the option to enable automatic removal. The Google search page, for example, now has a little notice and a link to settings underneath the main search field. Plus, that default auto-delete time still gives Google a big chunk of its history – 18 months for app and web activity and location history, and 36 months – three years! – for YouTube stories.

The timing of this announcement is interesting, given that Apple announced two days ago that, in the upcoming iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur releases, apps will be required to get user permission to track them. Updates to Apple’s operating system will also require app developers to post a clear notice telling them what’s being tracked. Apple’s move toward greater transparency and control could represent a huge boost to user privacy, one that Google doesn’t yet offer on its Google Play store.

The data that Google collects about its users is a big part of its business model. Google and its parent company Alphabet make billions of dollars in ad revenue, which are worth more when they’re targeted at the people most likely to buy the product they sell. So while Google has made some improvements to privacy and user control, it has struggled to convince the general public that it really cares about keeping your data private. And in this sense, Google has lagged behind some of its peers, such as Apple, whose business model is based much more on goods and services than on data and ads.

Given that relatively few accounts will have this default auto-delete feature and the large amount of data that is retained even with it, it’s hard to say what difference Google updates will really make to user privacy. But it does show that the company is trying to improve it, or at least makes us think that it does.

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