Google has a long memory, storing data that oftentimes users aren't aware is being collected. In a step toward greater transparency and security, Google has introduced a new tool called My Activity, which gives its users the ability to better understand and control the information it stores on them across all of its products and services.
But first, it makes an effort—cute animations included—to make people understand why it collects all the data that it does. (You want to get from A to B quickly, know what the weather will be and get quick access to Taylor Swift lyrics, don't you?)
"Every day, data makes our services work better for you. That's why it's important that we keep it private and safe—and put you in control," Google explains.
To get started, you can go to myaccount.google.com and click on My Activity, or sign in from myactivity.google.com
You can search your YouTube activity, for example, by content or by date, and delete some or all of it.
In Maps, you can view your Location History, which Google suggests can be helpful for remembering where you've been or optimizing a common route, but for many people it may be a startling reminder that each day—unless we make use of the controls Google offers—we're essentially carrying around tracking devices.
Under Location History, clicking Manage Your Activity will bring up a map and under it tiny thumbnail photos and descriptions of a user's most visited places. It's generally accurate, and Google welcomes corrections.
This writer was surprised to see the Brooklyn Rite Aid I often walk past listed among my 12 most visited places—and even more surprised to see that clicking on the Rite Aid brought up my entire day's path, from when I left the house at 7:31 a.m. until I returned at 7:42 p.m.—on Dec. 3, 2013. From there I could click by day and see everywhere I went.
On that Dec. 5th I apparently visited an uptown medical center, of which I have no immediate memory but am inclined to believe Google. As Google suggests, Location History provides "useful information," which certainly rediscovering the date of an annual check-up could qualify as.
Also fascinating is that Google used the hair salon I lived next door to as essentially the home base for my comings and goings. I didn't correct it.
Want to pause your Location History? Google's fine with that, but reminds you that products like its Search and Maps won't work as well. You can also manually add information—maybe to remember the spots that you visited on a vacation or a route you know you'll want to travel again.
Also included in My Activity is the ability to view, archive and delete Google searches. Plus, users can download their data archive, though Google asks that you protect this information from "bad guys" by using two-step verification. Removing your search data altogether is an option—though it's offered with so many suggestions and warnings that a user could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps it's all safer if Google just holds on to it.
In addition, users can view, delete or pause their YouTube viewing history in numerous locations—in the mobile app, on the mobile site and on a computer.
And finally, the tool wades into Google ads, explaining why users see the ads that they do and how to adjust one's "interests" so that more, well, interesting ads can be offered. Users can also block ads they don't want to see and turn off "interests"—which affords greater privacy but less relevant ads.
Users can also manage how ads display on YouTube videos.
Google has for some time been allowing users to view their activities and add settings. But this new tool offers more data to manage—and more data to think about.