Imagine if every time you left the house, a stranger followed you. Imagine they noted down where you live, who you friends are, the places you shop and the things you buy.
Then imagine they shared that information with individuals you didn’t know, and in turn those individuals began stopping you in the street, offering you goods and services. After all, they know exactly what you like.
You would probably find that kind of behaviour greatly disturbing. In short order, you would most likely report this stranger to the authorities for invasion of privacy.
If you had, you would know that Google can pinpoint your location using the GPS on your phone, its logs your phone number and that you don’t even have to actively use Google’s services for it to gather information on you.
Here we show you how to begin protecting the information you don’t want Google to collect and share. See also: How to stop hackers stealing your personal data
Each step can be used individually or combined, dependent on how hidden you wish to be.
Step 1 - Make your way to the Google Dashboard
You want to continue using Google’s services such as YouTube or Google Plus, but want to control the information they can see. Head to the Google Dashboard where you can access all Google services associated with your Google profile and control the level of privacy you wish to elicit. This won’t take you off Google’s radar, but it can control the volume of information you wish them to share with the world.
Step 2 – Delete your Cookies
If you are using default web browser settings, then your PC is most likely a cookie monster. When browsing the web, cookies (small .txt files) are downloaded to your PC. These are used by Google (and many other websites) as a unique identifier for your PC, collecting information on you and allowing adverts to follow you round the internet.
Here's how to clear your PC of unwanted cookies. While you’re at it, delete your browsing history also.
Step 3 – Going ‘Incognito’ or ‘InPrivate’
Major web browsers offer secure browsing to protect your privacy. Activating this function will prevent cookies being downloaded to your desktop and your browsing habits being logged in your search history. This is a big step to preventing Google and third-party websites from collecting information on you. Here’s how:
- Incognito in Chrome – Ctrl-Shift-N
- InPrivate for Firefox and Internet Explorer – Ctrl-Shift-P
Step 4 - Set up a personal VPN
Another level of anonymity can be provided by setting up a personal Virtual Private Network (VPN). Available from less than £5 a month, a VPN will not only provide anonymous Google browsing, it also protects you from hackers, providing a wall of strong encryption.
Step 5 – Download the DoNotTrackMe Application
It isn’t only Google tracking your movements. Download DoNotTrackMe, a handy Chrome plug-in which prevents online tracking from more than 600 web trackers. If you don’t trust ‘Incognito’ or ‘InPrivate’, this tool covers all major trackers including Google Analytics, Facebook and Twitter and prevents them from seeing or collecting your web activity.
You needn’t worry about session cookies any longer, DoNotTrackMe works by preventing cookies being placed on your machine in the first place. Your browsing activity cannot be tracked and you can no longer be followed by remarkting adverts.
Step 6 – Remove your house from Google Maps
With Street View, Google took it upon itself to drive past your house and take an array of high definition photos (without your permission). Those photos are now on Google Maps for the whole world to see. So if you’re not keen on sharing your home with the world (especially considering criminals have been using Street View to ‘case the joint’), here’s how to remove hide yourself on Google Maps:
- Navigate to Google Maps and enter your postcode
- Click the Street View icon (the little orange man on the left above the zoom function)
- Find the image of your home that you want removed
- Click "Report a Problem" (link in the bottom left corner)
- Complete the form and click the "Submit" button
Step 7 - Carry out a removal request
If you find personal information about yourself on Google that you don’t wish to be featured, you can request a removal. Unfortunately a quick look at Google’s Removal Policies suggests that unless it’s sensitive financial information or offensive images, you’re on your own.
Step 8 – Hide your social profiles from Google
The act of creating a social media profile often means that you’re willing to share a lot of personal information with the world. It is however possible to limit the content leaked to Google through privacy settings. Here’s a very brief guide for each platform:
- Twitter Privacy – tick the box “protect my tweets”
- LinkedIn Privacy – head to “Groups, Companies & Applications” tab. Under Privacy Controls un check the box for “data sharing with third party applications”
- Facebook Privacy – in the bottom section of “Who can look me up”, edit the final function which allows “other search engines to link your timeline”
Step 9 – Don’t login to your Google Account when using Chrome (especially on your phone)
If you are using Chrome, resist the urge to use your Google login. Yes, you will be able to access all your bookmarks, tabs open on other devices and save your passwords. But this is a fast track to Google profiling every single one of your actions, whilst also transporting your browsing history to any computer you log into using those credentials.
Google can now follow you on your home computer, your work computer, worse still it can sit in your pocket and follow you around if you’re logged in on your phone.
Step 10 – Don’t use Google search
An obvious one, this, but no-one is forcing you to use Google’s search engine. Quite apart from the tracking, Google also tailors the results (based on all it knows about you) so your list of results won’t be the same as someone else’s. Instead use a non-profiling engine such as duckduckgo.com
Step 11 – If you don’t want Google to find it, don’t put it online
Even more obvious, but it’s worth saying anyway: if you don’t want personal information about you on the web, don’t put it there in the first place. Google is everywhere, so if you’ve shared personal information online, it will likely end up in Google’s data banks.
So there you have it, 11 ways to keep your stuff private online, from simple abstinence to complex VPNs. Above all, don’t forget that Google isn’t the only company or institution collecting information on you: Bing, Yahoo, Facebook and even the government all do it too.
Edward Jones works for Firebrand Training overseeing community engagement. Having worked in the industry for 3 years, Edward has experience with a range of Microsoft technologies and operating systems. Edward writes for a variety of blogs and technical publications on all things technology.