On Wednesday, the 25th of June 2020, Google proudly announced the rolling out of numerous privacy updates. The world’s most popular search engine made significant changes to its default data retention practices and considerable strides in their willingness to delete data automatically. The company put out an official blog that outlined how its fundamental principles of privacy, security, and user choice influenced these latest updates.
Google deals with large amounts of data daily. Numerous services and billions of daily users generate enormous amounts of data. This data is not only used in ad targeting, but with personalization. Access to your history helps Google customize results and recommendations to its large user base. Google logs user data in the My Activity page, where it gives users insight into collected data. Historically, the company used to store collected data indefinitely until they first introduced the option to manually and automatically delete data in 2019. This featured enabled users to go into the settings and activate systematic delete data points after 3 or 18 months for their search, voice, Youtube activity, and Location History. Those updates were a significant breakthrough for the search engine giant, and the latest updates take things a step further.
Google has found a way to get the best of both worlds by keeping information and enabling users a more personalized experience, without having years worth of private data. Here are important changes brought about by the new update:
Google Location Tracking
The primary announcement in the latest update concerns Google History Location. This is a setting that records user movements on devices that:
- Are signed into Google
- Turned on Location History
- Activated Local Reporting
While some people are not fans of this level of tracking, some enjoy the benefits, such as personalized maps, recommendations based on where you have previously been, phone locating, real-time traffic updates, and more customized and targeted advertisements. The location tracking history will still be off by default, but when it is turned on, the user location data will be set to automatically delete after 18 months. Users will also have the option to manually delete location data whenever they want or enable auto-delete to take place every 3 or 18 months.
As of the 25th of June 2020, older users will need to opt into the auto-delete feature, while new users will have it as a default feature. The company wanted to introduce more user control in location-related data since it had numerous scandals related to location tracking and data collection.
Google Web and App Activity Tracking
Google has also included web and app activity into its new privacy updates. All activity will be deleted on an 18-month basis, but only for newer accounts (created after the release of updates.) The update will also extend to YouTube history, but the default will be 36 months instead of 18 months. The reason for this is that Youtube requires broader data for its recommendation algorithms, which are one of the main things that help shape user experience.
It is important to note that the new default will affect only new users. Web and app activity, as well as Youtube history, will still be stored indefinitely for existing users. However, they can turn on the auto-delete option by going to the Google Activity Controls page.
Improving Incognito Mode
Google is also improving Chrome’s Incognito mode. This feature enables users to browse the web and use apps privately, without Google saving their history, cookies, or site data. One of the main features is going to be easier accessibility to Incognito mode. Users will be able to easily switch to between Incognito and normal browsing by pressing and holding their profile pictures. The feature is already live on iOS and is soon coming out on Android and other platforms as well.
Accessible Privacy Settings
In addition to that, Google is also looking to make privacy settings and controls more easily discoverable and accessible to all users. When a user is signed in, they will be able to search for terms like ‘Google Privacy Checkup’ and ‘Is my Google Account secure?’. This will open up a box that is only visible to the user, and display security and privacy settings to easily review and adjust them.
While most of these defaults are only automatically set for newer users, Google intends to spread the message to older users by promoting these changes on the search page and on Youtube.
What Potentially Prompted These Updates
While there is no official statement as to what prompted these updates, many believe that it is Google’s response to the upcoming California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) enforcement deadline. The consumer privacy act, AB 375, was officially passed in June of 2018 and is to come into effect on the 1st of July 2020.
The consumer privacy act allows users the right to demand to see all information a company has saved on them, as well as a full list of all third parties that the data is shared with. The California law authorizes consumers the right to sue companies that violate privacy guidelines, even if there is no breach of data.
The law affects any company that serves California residents and makes at least $25 million in annual revenue. Even companies that are not based in the state or nation must comply. The law also encompasses companies of any size that have personal data on at least 50 000 people or that collect more than half of their income from the sale of personal data. While Google does not sell personal data, it is a leader in the industry that serves billions of users every day. The large user base and constant stream of data could have prompted these latest changes.
Why Is This Important
While there were controversies around Google and its practices in the past, the company has continuously looked for ways to make privacy settings easier to understand and more accessible to its users. However, these moves also play a positive role in building up Google’s reputation. If users feel confident that their data will be deleted automatically, they might be more inclined to use additional features such as Location History. These new updates and options could help keep users that value privacy and go for more privacy-friendly search engines like DuckDuckGo.When it comes to ad targeting, it is unlikely that these changes will make a huge difference in the experience. The default retention period provides enough information to provide well targeted ads. In some ways, the new settings represent a compromise between users’ privacy and Google’s business interests as an ad network.