Ironically, this attempt at transparency also has a lot of people worrying about the evil things that Google may be doing with personal data. A little paranoia is a good thing when it comes to Google – or to Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, our ISPs, or pretty much everyone else that gets their hands on our sweet, tasty data.
But right now, we’ll focus on Google, and especially on Google’s flagship service: Search. You may be surprised to find out how much of your search history is stored or, if you’re already properly paranoid, you may not be surprised at all.
Let’s take a quick look at Search History, first on Google’s servers, and then on your own browser, and figure out how much we can get rid of, before it’s too late.
Step One: Google Web History
If you don’t have a Google Account, you may happily skip ahead to the next section. But if you’ve ever created a log in for Gmail, Calendar, Android, or any of Google’s umpteen services, you have a Search History.
Go ahead and log in, and go to any Google page that displays the black menu bar at the top (such Google Search page, Gmail, Maps, News, Docs, etc.). Some services won’t give you that option yet, such as YouTube.
Quickest way? Type (or click on) https://www.google.com/history/
See you at Step #6.
Otherwise, look toward the top right of the window, and you’ll see a little drop-down arrow on the right of your avatar. Click on this. If for some reason you still have the older version of Google, you may instead see a gear-shaped icon in the black toolbar itself.
On the menu that drops down, click on the link that reads “Account Settings.”
Lots of useful things you can do on this page, but for now just scroll down to the bottom. You’ll see three very powerful links for deleting Google products — up to and including your entire account. If you’re only concerned with “Search History,” click on the bottom link that reads “Go to web history.”
Take a minute or two to come to terms with how much info is there. You can remove items one by one, or click on the “Remove all Web History” link.
While you’re there, you may want to limit Google’s history-making powers even further. Pausing web history, or limiting the kinds of history Google collects, can make deleting your web history unnecessary in the future — although if you plan to keep using your Google Account, it won’t hurt to check back in every once in a while. I turned my web history off months ago, and I still like to make sure that it’s stayed off since then.
Step Two: Browser History
To be fair, it’s not all about Google. Your browser keeps track of your history for some very good reasons — to speed up page loading, to give you a reference if you need to find something that you remember but didn’t bookmark, etc. But any of this could potentially be used against you — even if that week that you spent looking at homemade explosives was really just for a school project.
In IE7 to IE9, look to the top right for the Tools menu — either a gear icon, or the word “Tools” itself, or you can just hit ALT-X from your keyboard.
Go to menu item that reads “Safety.”
“Delete Browsing History” should be the top submenu item that pops up.
In IE9, you can also remove History items one by one, by opening the “Favorites” menu and clicking on the “History” tab — you can sort your history by date or site, and right-click on any item to get the delete option.
And, if you’re running IE 6.x or earlier, you have far bigger security worries than your browsing history.
Depending on the version, click on the “Firefox” button or the “Tools” menu item at the top.
You’ll either see “Clear Recent History” right away, or you’ll need to click on the “History” submenu item to get there.
Like IE, you’ll get the opportunity to delete cookies and stored passwords as well as browsing history, and you’ll also (despite the “Recent” part of the name) be able to delete ALL of your history.
PLUS, you get to tell Firefox to stop storing your Search History altogether. From that same “Firefox” or “Tools” button, click on “Options” instead. Select the “Privacy” tab and you’ll see a drop-down box with options for automatically clearing your search history.
Click on the wrench icon at the top right.
Go to “History,” about halfway down on the menu that pops up. You’ll see all of the individual pages that Chrome has stored.
Click on the “Clear all browsing data” button at the top, whereupon you’ll be greeted by the usual choices (cookies, cache, download history, etc.).
When deleting your browsing history, you also have the choice of time frames, from “the past hour” all the way to “the beginning of time” (yes, Google has a sense of humor).
With any major browser, you have the option to browse anonymously by default, which won’t add any pages to your history. Microsoft calls it “In Private Browsing,” Google calls it “Incognito,” and Firefox calls it “Private Browsing.” This is useful when you want to keep history turned on during ‘official’ browsing sessions.
Ok, so what’s the bad news? Google (along with every ISP and online service that handles browsing data) is both legally required and professionally motivated to maintain server logs of things like emails, IP traffic, and cookie data — and they’re NOT required to let you view them, change them, or delete them.
So what’s the only way to truly keep your data private? Yep, give up the Internet completely. And no cell phones. And no credit cards. I’ll do it if you do it first!