FAQ: How to tell Google to forget you and make it stick

Tell me again why I want to delete my web history? And what Google would do with it?

A post I put up Wednesday warning that anyone who has ever used Google Search has only until March 1 to delete their previous web history before it becomes part of a monstrous, permanent multifaceted customer-behavioral profile of them clearly hit a nerve with readers.

It got more response than almost anything else I've posted here except the very serious but largely unheeded warning about the coming of the prehistoric mammoth zombie apocalypse.

Fortunately, deleting your Google Search history is a much simpler problem with far less chance of being stomped flat or have your brain eaten by the prehistoric undead.

  • What's the story with the Google privacy thing? Why do people want to delete things from Google?

Google, counterintuitively for a company whose unofficial motto is still "Don't be evil," is actually quite aggressive and quite efficient about collecting information about its customers (meaning everyone who ever uses the Internet and searches for anything {meaning everyone}).

Google may not be evil, compared to the ranks and ranks of much less scrupulous snoops out there on the web.

Google, at least, admits what it's doing and isn't too covert about most of it (illegally bypassing privacy controls on Internet Explorer, Safari and who knows what else somehow didn't make the disclosure list).

The other data-sucking monsters are less forthcoming. And by data-sucking-monsters I mean almost all search engines, any high-traffic sites that do a lot of business in targeted ads and several categories of marketing-support and user-data providers that sell nothing you'd want to buy, but get it by spying on you to see what you want, how you want it, under what circumstances and for what price.

For a company that already has reams of data on what you've searched for, looked at or actually did online, Google has been fairly prudish about fully exploiting that information until now.

It didn't combine everything your Gmail account knows about your friends and family with what YouTube knows about how much funnier you think catastrophic-skater-crash videos are than kid-hits-dad-in-the-crotch-with-a-ball videos.

That's all over now.

As of March 1 Google is combining all of what each of those services knows about you into one database designed to give marketers invaluable insights into your motivations and preferences – all gleaned from what you look at online.

  • But I can erase all that whenever I want?

Nope. You can't erase it because it doesn't live on your computer. It lives on Google's computers. When you sign in to a Google site, a cookie designed to stay put even when you try to delete the other cookies on your system tells Google you're there so Google can record every request you put through it from then on.

The data is perpetual – meaning you can't get rid of it unless Google lets you get rid of it.

Luckily, for a very short time, Google is allowing you to get rid of it (see instructions here).

Deleting information in the main Search profile won't make you a stealth user or keep anyone from realizing you're physically present.

It will eliminate much of the information that would have been the centerpiece of a marketing profile of your behavior, with links to all those crotch shots you watched on YouTube but, of course, didn't enjoy.

  • What about my Google services? Do I lose those?

You do not lose any Google Services by deleting your web history. You only make your search results a little more random and weaken (a bit) the feeling of having someone stare over your shoulder at everything you read, see and do.

All the other services have their own profiles too, of course. You'll have to go to those individually and erase them, if they make a Web History control panel available to you.

  • Why is Google tracking all this information about me anyway? I never said it could.

You probably did, at one time or another, or fell victim to the "on by default' trap. Originally it was necessary to tell Google you wanted it to track your searches, postings and periods of silence indicating bathroom breaks. Later Google switched it so everyone was signed up by default. If your accounts predate the change to default, you probably aren't being tracked, at least not in that one spot.

  • So if I don't have a Gmail or YouTube account, I'm good, right?

No, not as long as you have cookies.

Google tracks users two ways. When someone with an account logs in, Google puts a persistent cookie in your browser so it knows where you are and what you're doing.

If you don't have Google account – or don't sign in – Google puts a persistent cookie in your browser (at least it's consistent) along with snippets of code that collect the URLs, subjets and locations of sites you visit.

The other Google service sites have similar tracking features, but they don't currently share that information. At least, they won't until March 1.

  • So if I delete the information and shut off the tracking on Google Search that's the end of it?

No. Google will still track your footsteps all over the web using the two mechanisms described above. Deleting your web history also "pauses" the tracking mechanism. In Googlespeak, "Paused" means "Stopped," but leaves the door open for Google to start collecting again when it changes its mind.

Comments, problems, WTFs from earlier blog entry "Last chance to tell Google to forget you"

  • "I can't figure out from the onscreen messages whether I'm doing it right."

The process isn't hard but the support messages appear to have been written by engineers more fluent in C than colloquial English (even native English speakers often lose the ability to communicate in their native language after steeping too long in the very particular world of the Engineer's Mind).

  • "I followed your instructions and got: "Web History has not been enabled by the administrator of the domain @" Does this mean Google is not tracking me?"

This wasn't clear to me, either and there was no explicit information in Google Support, so I checked with Google directly.

Google Spokesperson:"For Google Apps customers, the domain admin can disable services such as Web History for the entire domain in the Google Apps  control panel. This message means that Web History has not been enabled for your domain and your account."

In case that's still not clear, and it probably won't be except to users of Google Apps, there are different rules for Google services aimed at businesses or that let businesses pay a certain amount per month to use Gmail as their corporate email systems with all the domains and addresses customized with the name of their business rather than Google's.

IT administrators have a certain amount of control over those apps, one aspect of which is being able to choose how nosy Google is allowed to be when it is private-labeled and kept on a leash rather than operating with a free hand from the mother ship.

Ultimately, either your company wanted to limit the snooping, or your employer simply doesn't care about your deepest secrets, interests and desires; at least not as much as Google cares. Because your company only wants you to work; Google wants you to search, learn, browse, and, ultimately, buy the McDeepest Interest Holiday Present as its behavioral model for you says you should.

Currently you're free to buy or not buy. In the future, the behavioral model of you that Google builds will be so well rounded and self directed that if you turn down the McDeepest Interest package it told advertisers you'd buy, it might hunt you down to beat you up. (Recently sentient behavioral models are marvels of technology, but everything they are comes from someone else, so they're really, really insecure and easily offended. This is the real reason most hardcore geeks want to keep big companies from building such elaborate models of them. Most geeks can't fight and it would be really embarrassing to be beaten up by an artificial model of yourself.)

  • "Mine had no delete button. It just had "No Thanks" or "Turn Web History On"...am I good to go then?"

That message appears to mean you either opted out of the Improve MySearch Results At the Cost of the Last Shred of My Privacy program when it was presented to you, or your account is so long-standing you got grandfathered into being un-followed.

  • "Same here; should I turn it on and then remove history?"

No. It may be better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all. But when you're talking privacy, it's better never to have given one of the nosy crocodiles a taste of your flesh in the first place. Leave that history turned off.

  • "If your request for https://google.com/history has a referrer attached, Google redirects you to their home page. I guess they don't want novice users to read an article like this, get scared and then delete their history. You certainly have to admire them ;)"

Yes, we do. They give us no choice.

"So if we get redirectd to the homepage, how do we access the relevant section where it is possible to delete all history?

Type it by hand into the navigation bar of your browser: https://google.com/history

That should take you there directly with no referrer.

  • "Does this mean that we have removed the history of searches that we have made for the length of time we have been using Google search?"

Yes. At least, the searches associated with that account. It doesn't eliminate records of your browsing history when you were not logged in to a Google account. It doesn’t stop Google from tracking your search or browsing activity in the future, either tied to a single account or to a semi-anonymous cookie identifying you. It also doesn't eliminate your history with YouTube, Picasa or any other Google service. You have to go find the relevant history page on each of those and eliminate them.

What it does do is sever the link between the profile Google already has of all your browsing and searching activity and the record it has of you from all those other services. Eventually, if you allow the other services to track your history, or allow Google to place tracking cookies in your browser without eliminating them frequently, that profile will build up again.

There are more things you can do to make that more difficult, none of which are particularly difficult or expensive, which I'll run down in a blog item in a day or so.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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