How much data are you giving away every day? You may be surprised to realise just how much data is being gathered about you even if you have disabled a lot of the more obvious settings.
Amazon has found itself at the heart of a privacy storm thanks to its Amazon Echo devices. While no one was under the illusion that a device designed to spring into action on hearing a specific "wake" word was doing anything but listening, they may have been surprised to learn that those commands may have been heard by humans at Amazon who were tasked with making the voice recognition more accurate.
The easiest way to solve that particular privacy conundrum is not to use Alexa at all, whether it’s on Amazon Echo devices, your phone or a third-party device that has built Amazon’s digital assistant into its hardware.
But if you still want to use Alexa you can limit what it stores about you. All the settings you need can be found in your Amazon account page, under Manage your Content and devices. Select Alexa Privacy.
If you don’t want your voice data used to improve Alexa’s accuracy you can switch that off. Go to Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa, and set Help develop new features to off.
Messages you send through Alexa may also be used to help increase accuracy through transcription. Scroll down, and set Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions to off for every user on your account.
Once you’ve done that you might want to tackle the voice history that Amazon has on file for your account. Go to Review Voice History, and you can listen to and remove individual voice files, clear history for a day, a month or for all time.
You will notice that some files don’t have a transcription available and are marked “audio was not intended for Alexa”. They are still stored with your account, though, so you might want to delete them.
You may not use Alexa at all. But there are other options to limit what information Amazon collects and uses to market even more things to you.
When you log into Amazon.co.uk, you’ll see a section that says (Your name)’s Amazon. That is where all your information is stored, from your browsing history to your recommendations.
Under browsing history you have some controls to use to either completely delete your browsing history or delete individual items from your searches.
You can also tell Amazon not to monitor it by turning browsing history off. If you prefer to leave that active, but don’t want Amazon making recommendations based on your previous purchases, you can remove individual items.
You can also control how Amazon uses your information for advertising. Go to Your Account, and under Email, ALerts messaging and Ads, select Advertising preferences. Select Do not show me interest-based ads provided by Amazon.
Of course, all this means the data can’t be gleaned from your account at the customer facing end – it’s not clear if that data is deleted from Amazon’s servers. If you want to delete your data from Amazon completely you have to contact the company to request a deletion.
Out of all the big tech companies, Apple is one that is keen to stress its commitment to your privacy. When it unveiled its latest News+ and TV+ apps, Tim Cook stressed that advertising would not be allowed on the new services, and that Apple would not be passing data to third parties to allow them to sell its subscribers more products.
One way Apple differs from its rivals in the tech industry is that much of the data you give to Apple to allow its services to work is kept on the device, meaning it doesn’t get stored in the cloud, and information that is sent is encrypted, and where appropriate completely anonymised so it can’t be linked to your account.
Its web browser Safari limits the amount of information advertisers can glean about you from your web browsing history in a number of ways, from preventing cross-site tracking to blocking cookies.
First of all you can change what search engine you want to use. Maybe you are fine with google. Or perhaps you're more of a Bing person. You can choose your search engine by going to Settings>Safari> Search engine. At present, there are four options: Google, Yahoo, Bing and DuckDuckGo.
But Apple goes a step further. The address bar on Safari is more than just somewhere to type a URL. You can also use it to search, a feature of which most iOS users would be aware, and the sole reason for choosing your search engine as already mentioned. But what you may not realise is that by using that bar you are limiting the amount of information that passes to third parties regardless of what search engine you use.
In Settings go to Privacy and Security. From there you can enable Prevent Cross Site Tracking, block cookies and enable warnings about fraudulent websites. You can also enable and disable permissions such as allowing sites to check if Apple pay has been set up, or giving the sites camera and microphone access.
Speaking of Apple Pay, if you have been considering Apple Pay but aren’t too sure how it stacks up privacy and security wise, it might be worth taking another look. The payments service allows you to pay with your phone or your computer, if you are on a Mac, without your card number ever passing to the seller. That’s because when you set up Apple Pay the service encrypts the card information, assigns it a unique device.
What happens if you lose your phone though?
Because Apple Pay requires you to set a passcode on your device, with facial recognition or your fingerprint as an optional extra making a payment would be almost impossible. Plus you can remotely disable Apple Pay through iCloud on a web browser.
Apple doesn’t have access to your transaction history; that is stored on the phone and its secure element. Your card numbers never even pass to the shops you are buying from, making it more secure than using your contactless card for a purchase.
There are a few things you can alter to cut the amount of information used by your Apple services.
To limit what data voice assistant Siri has access to go to settings>Siri & Search and turn off Search, Look Up and keyboard. You can also turn off Siri suggestions for each app on your phone.
You can completely disable location services for Apple devices with a single button, but there are some good reasons for keeping them at least partially enabled. Find my iPhone, for example, depends on location services to allow you to track your phone’s last known location.
If you are a user of Google’s services you may have noticed that signing in to your Google account allows you to take all your settings, preferences and information with you, regardless of what device you are using. If you sign in to the Chrome browser, whether you are on desktop or mobile, you will find all your bookmarks available, and your browsing history is gathered in one place. It adds up to a lot of information, some of which could be used to target advertising to users.
But maybe you aren’t comfortable with that. To see all your activity across your Google account – and delete it – sign in and go to https://myaccount.google.com/activitycontrols. There you will be able to choose what Google can and can’t store about you.
Switch web and app activity to stop Google saving your activity on Google sites and apps to your account. It comes up as “paused”, which makes it sound like a temporary thing. And there’s a caveat: the tech firm says it may “temporarily” use information from recent searches to improve the quality of the active search session.
You can do the same thing for Voice and Audio activity, location history and and YouTube activity – again with their own caveats.
Location history may be particularly detailed, and able to pinpoint your home, work and other frequently-visited places. Turing that off will stop Google Assistant from offering you advice on your morning commute, but it will also give you a bit more privacy.
Ad personalisation can also be turned off on Google. Go to adssettings.google.com to see exactly what Google is basing its targeted ads on, and to disable the whole set up.
Voice activity will be stored from the times you have used a Google Home smart speaker or talked to Google Assistant on your phone while logged in to your account. Not all of them will be intentional either; I found files of my young children who had accidentally activate it saved to this particular silo of information.
What about Google Pay? The data from the payments platform is stored on your phone, and like Apple it isn’t used for targeting ads because Google doesn’t have access to your transaction history. Also your card number is never sent to the seller when you use it to pay for something.
According to Microsoft, it shares your personal data with consent with Microsoft-controlled affiliates and subsidiaries, and with suppliers working on its behalf, aside from the usual legal cases. But what data is it actually sharing?
A few years ago Microsoft raised some eyebrows over the amount of data Windows 10 was collecting about users. The good news? You can switch a lot of it off.
The bad? Settle yourself in for a data privacy session and a half. There is a mind-boggling list of privacy settings on Windows 10. Go to Settings and choose privacy, and you will be presented with a list. A very long list.
For example, you can disable access to account information, or refuse permission to share data about how you write or type. You can give access to specific location data for individual apps, or none at all. Contacts access can be limited or targeted, and you can also choose which apps – if any – you want to run in the background. There’s even a few settings you may never have considered before.
If you haven't quite made the break with Facebook you can at least limit what it gathers about you and uses to target advertising.
Completely opting out of ads isn’t possible, although using an ad blocker will decrease the number you see on the desktop site. Facebook has an ad preferences page that allows you to remove information used to serve you ads on certain topics. To access this page, find an ad, and click on the arrow in the right hand corner of it. Select Why am I seeing this? then click on Manage your advert preferences. You can edit the topics you feel aren’t relevant to you – or delete them all.
The social network can also use your web browsing habits on external sites that use Facebook’s technology, but you can put a stop to that. Click on the lock icon in the top right corner of your Facebook page, then select See more settings>Adverts. Go to Adverts Based on my use of Websites and Apps, choose edit, and turn it off. You can also choose to stop Facebook ad preferences being used to show you ads on apps and websites distributed using the Facebook audience network, and prevent your social interactions being used with ads.
You’ll still see ads, but they just aren’t using your Facebook information to tailor them.
At some point when you logged into your Facebook mobile app or Messenger, you may have been prompted to sync your phone contacts with Facebook, uploading a copy of your address book to Facebook’s servers. No one else on your Facebook account can see the information but you; however, if you want to delete it click on the arrow in the top right corner of the desktop site. Then select Settings, and go to Facebook’s page for managing invites and contacts. You’ll see an option to delete selected contacts, by checking the box next to each one, or to remove all imported contacts in one go.
You can also see what contacts have been uploaded through Messenger by going to https://www.facebook.com/mobile/messenger/contacts/.
Finally, make sure you’ve disabled autosync for your contacts in Messenger or else you’ll find your address book is back on your profile before long. In Android, tap the cog in the corner of the screen, then tap People >Synced Contacts, and switch off the setting. In iOS tap the cog icon, and tap Synced Contacts to disable the autosync.
Twitter gathers data in a couple of ways. For example, the contacts you may have uploaded to establish connections, your location or your personal data that is being shared with Twitter’s partners – all with your permission, of course.
To get control of your contacts back click on your profile picture, then select Settings & Privacy>Privacy & Safety>Discoverability & contacts. Scroll down to Contacts, and disable Sync address book contacts. You can also choose to remove all contacts you’ve previously uploaded.
To stop Twitter tracking your precise location, go to Settings & Privacy>Privacy & Safety>Location. You’ll see an option for Precise Location; disable it if you don’t want Twitter using it to show you local content, ads and recommendations.
Under the Personalisation and Data setting, you’ll find settings that give Twitter permission to use your personal data and share with its business partners. You can switch the whole lot off with one button – Personalisation and data – or pick and choose. Personalised ads, which uses your Twitter activity to target advertising to you, can easily go. You could also stop Twitter personalising data across devices you use to log in, and using your location information to tailor content and ads.
Also on that page is the permission required to share your data with Twitter’s business partners. Disabling this means you will still see ads, but they won’t be targeted.