How to see what Google knows about you, and delete it

Google, like many other big tech companies, knows a lot about you.

Credit: Google/Gerd Altmann, modified by IDG Comm

Google collects a lot of data about you if you use the company’s services. To its credit, the company makes finding and deleting that data easy by showing most of it on a single website. Here’s how to see the bulk of what Google knows about you, and how to delete it if you want. 

Once you delete data from your Google Account, the company immediately starts removing it and stops using it for personalization. “We then begin a process designed to safely and completely delete the data from our storage systems,” Google explains. It may be forced to keep some information for legal requirements, which you can read about at the link above.

Google Accounts

googlemyaccount IDG

Google’s My Account website is the starting point for seeing the company’s stored data about you.

The primary starting point to see what information Google has about you is the My Account website. From here you can find the information you’ve supplied, as well as data the company gathered in the background.

The My Accounts site offers a set of tabs at the top, as well as some informational tiles covering topics such as security and privacy issues with your account, how much available storage you’ve used, and a quick link to the personalization section.

You could go through each tab, but to target our purge strategically we’ll stick to the tabs at the top. We’ll also be jumping around a bit to deal with the sections where the most critical personal information lies. 

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The Personal Info section on Google’s My Account website.

The easiest place to start is the Personal info tab. Here you’ll see listed information such as your name, nickname (usually your first name), birthdate, gender, backup email addresses for account recovery, and phone numbers. Click anything in this section with an arrow to the right, and it will take you to a screen where you can manage this data.

Almost all of this information can be deleted, or if not it can be changed. The key bits Google insists on having include your name and nickname. If Google has your birthdate this cannot be deleted, but you can change it and restrict who is able to see it. You also cannot change or delete your alternate usernames if you have any.

Click on the link Go to About me in the “Choose what others see” tile toward the bottom of the page. Here you won’t delete information, but rather choose who can see it across Google’s services.


myaccountactivitycontrols IDG

Google’s Activity Controls section is the launch point for a lot of key information.

The history of your activity with Google services and products includes your browsing history from Chrome, search history, YouTube search and viewing histories, and the all important location history (largely culled from mobile devices).

Location History is the most critical to personal privacy. Go to Data & personalization > Activity Controls > Location History.

On the next screen you’ll see a number of options, including the ability to turn location history on and off right at the top. There’s an auto-delete option that can you can set to jettison information older than 3 months, 18 months, or 36 months. A “manage activity” section opens Google Maps, where you can delete what information Google has on a case-by-case basis.

activitycontrols IDG

Google’s Activity Controls make managing your data easier.

The next one is your browsing and search history under Data & personalization > Activity Controls > Web & App Activity. Again we get to a second page with some simplified controls. You can turn off your Chrome history and activity on other Google services with a simple click. There’s an option for not saving voice recordings, which would include all your Google Home queries as well as any other Google Assistant queries on other devices. This setting is off by default, but if you have it on and decide to turn it off again, prior recordings won’t be deleted.

Below that we have another auto-delete option, as well as links to Google’s My Activity page where you can delete past audio recordings, specific searches, and app usage on Android.

Finally, there’s your YouTube histories, which includes your watch and search histories. This is found at Data & Personalization > Activity Controls > YouTube History, and it follows the same basic settings that we saw in the other two sections.

Contacts and ad personalization

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If you’ve decided to manage your contacts on a separate service such as your own Nextcloud instance, then you may want to get rid of your contacts on Google. You don’t need to jump into Gmail to manage this—they are easily accessible via My Account at People & sharing > Contacts. Alternatively, you can just go to the dedicated Contacts site while signed into your Google account.

This section of the My Account site lets you turn on or off features such as automatically saving contacts from your signed-in devices, like a phone. There’s also a setting for saving contact information for people you interact with in Google services. This setting does not, however apply to a similar setting in Gmail. For that you need to go to Gmail’s settings under General > Create contacts for auto-complete.

googleadsettings IDG

A sampling of Google’s ad personalization settings.

If you want to dip into the weird world of Google data analytics, take a look at Data & personalization > Ad personalization > Go to ad settings. This section lets you turn on and off ad personalization in Google products (based on your browsing, search history, YouTube history, and so on). Below that is an entire section that shows how your ads are personalized. This includes basic stuff like your age demographics, gender, marital status, and language. But it also has a long list of advertising subjects Google thinks you’re interested in. It appears that once you search for something a few times it gets tagged in this section. If you have ad personalization turned on you can’t delete any of these categories, but you can turn them off so Google won’t show you ads based on these subjects.

Odds and Ends

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Shared recommendations in ads is an easy one to turn off.

Those are the critical pieces of information Google has about you, but there’s still a ton of items to uncover. One item we’d suggest that everyone turn off is called shared endorsements. This is a setting where your name, profile photo, and activity can be included in ads shown to people you know. This usually happens if you’ve reviewed a product they’re looking at or something similar. Neither Google, nor any other company, needs your unwitting help to sell things. You can turn this off under People & sharing > Shared recommendations in ads > Manage shared endorsements.

If you scroll down toward the bottom of Data & personalization you can also find sections for managing reservations of flights, hotels, and events based on activity from search, Maps, and Google Assistant. Finally, if you scroll up a bit in this section you’ll see a tile titled “Download, delete, or make a plan for your data,” where you can delete your account, or download all your data.

We didn’t touch the Security tab, because it’s mostly information you don’t want to change, or which Google insists on having so you can get back into your account if you lose your password. We’d recommend you delete phone numbers once you have another method of recovery set -up. Using your phone number for SMS-based authentication to sign into your account or authorize actions is simply not secure. A better option is to use two-factor authentication like Yubikey or Google’s Authenticator app. Google’s homegrown one-click “Yes, it’s me” authorizations on an Android phone are also better than an SMS option.

Another section we didn’t discuss is Payments & subscriptions. If you no longer want Google Pay to have one of your payment methods, this is where you’d delete it. This section is also where you can manage your YouTube subscriptions and any purchases you made using search, maps, or Google Assistant.

Google has an absolute ton of information about you, but it’s mostly accessible from a single website that is easy to understand and manage. Enjoy plumbing the depths of your online persona, or at least what Google believes it is.

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Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
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