The Google Assistant can make life easier, but to really work its magic, it needs to view and collect lots of data. From lists of the apps you install to audio recordings of the commands you give, your Assistant could know more about you than you think. In this guide, we’ll explain how to manage your Google Assistant privacy settings.
Given that hover cars and world peace are yet to materialise, virtual assistants are the clearest sign yet that we’re living in the future. With just a quick voice command, we can get Siri to set a reminder, Alexa to pump up the volume, or the Google Assistant to remind us where we left our keys. But keeping us organised means having access to some of our most personal data. It’s important to understand and have control over what you’re sharing.
The Google Assistant needs access to your data to work effectively. Without your calendar, for example, it can’t create appointments for you. Without knowing your location it can’t update you on the weather. This access is granted by the permissions you allow for the Google app on an Android device, and the Google Assistant app on an iOS device. While the Assistant may still work if you limit these, its usefulness will be seriously reduced.
The Assistant doesn’t just use this ‘in-the-moment’ information – it can also tap into Google’s records of your past searches, app use, and location. This store of activity is used by many Google services to better understand your interests and offer more relevant help – for example, your location history lets Android Auto suggest nearby destinations you previously went to at a similar time of day.
Not everyone is comfortable with Google storing activity history in this way, but it’s an opt-in feature. Below we’ll show you how to opt out, or manage the details of how your activity is stored. Because activity data is used by many Google services, it’s managed centrally: any changes you make may limit the functionality of all the services using the stored activity.
The Google Assistant also records data of its own each time you interact. This includes transcripts of the questions you asked. It also includes things you asked the Assistant to remember, for example by saying “Hey Google, remember I left the back door unlocked.” If you’ve enabled it, Google may also be storing audio recordings. These help Google improve its voice-recognition performance. Below we show you how to review, limit and delete all of this data.
Protecting your data
The breadth of Google’s data gathering, and the highly personal information within it, should be a reminder of the importance of securing your Google account. At the least we strongly recommend using a unique and hard-to-guess password, but it’s wise to also protect your account with two-factor authentication (2FA).
If you haven’t already, it’s a good idea to enable this by visiting myaccount.google.com/security. Here you can enable 2FA and choose your preferred method. Google prompts, sent directly to your phone, are probably easiest. We’d strongly recommend also choosing at least one backup method to prevent you getting locked out of your account. The Google Authenticator app is useful as it’s widely supported by other sites and services such as Facebook and Nintendo. As a failsafe, you could print out a set of codes and keep them securely.
Reviewing your activity
With this done, it’s time to review and change the activity settings for your Google account. You can do this from the Google app on an Android phone, or the Google Assistant app on an iPhone, but it’s easiest to simply visit myactivity.google.com. Here you’ll see settings that control which activity is saved in your Google account, and thus is available to the Assistant. If these are all off, then you’re not keeping any history – if that’s what you want, there’s nothing left for you to do. For most users, all or most of the activity settings will be enabled, and scrolling down the page will reveal a long history of your digital behaviour.
It’s easier to view this activity and understand what’s going on if you review the settings by type. Click or tap first on ‘Web & app activity’ to view the web and app settings. Un-ticking the ‘Include Chrome history…’ box will stop saving your activity from Chrome, and any apps that share data with Google.
You can also opt in or out of storing audio recordings. Note that, while most of the data Google stores remains encrypted on its servers, audio recordings saved under this setting might be reviewed and transcribed by humans. Whatever your preferences for saving Web, app and audio activity, you might want to set up a time limit for how long the data is kept. Select ‘Auto-delete’ to choose whether to automatically purge events older than three, 18 or 36 months.
Review your data
If you’re not clear on the type of data being saved in your account, selecting ‘Manage activity’ can be a bit of an eye-opener. Here you can scroll down the full list of activity saved under this category – you might be surprised by the items that appear. You can examine or delete any individual entry by selecting the three-dot icon at its right.
It’s easy to delete a day’s activity by clicking the dustbin icon to the right of that day’s heading in the list. You can also use the search box to search for a specific site or app, or use the filter to narrow your view to, say, the last 30 days. Once you’ve applied a filter, selecting ‘Delete’ to the right of it lets you remove all the displayed events.
When you’re happy with your Web & app history settings, return to the My Activity page and follow the same steps for your Location History. The options are similar, including the Manage activity view, and the option to set up Auto-delete. You can also review which devices provide location data to Google for your account – usually it will be one or more smartphones or tablets. Finally, you can repeat the process for your YouTube history.
Google Assistant activity
You may have noticed Google Assistant activity in the list when you reviewed your activity above. The Assistant falls within the Web & app settings, so any changes you’ve made there will also affect how your activity with the Assistant is stored. For example, if you’ve configured a three-month limit on storing Web and app data, Google only stores three months of your Assistant activity, too.
You can view only your Assistant activity by visiting myactivity.google.com/item?pli=1&restrict=assist. Here you’ll get a better view of how you’re using the Assistant, and see the now-familiar controls to review, filter and delete items from your activity. It’s important to understand that the options here to save and automatically delete activity are inherited from the Web and app activity settings, and any changes you make will affect other Google services. You can’t configure the Google Assistant’s activity history differently.
Reviewing the settings above should give you greater confidence that Google only stores the activity data you allow, for the time you specify. And using the tools in the Manage activity view lets you quickly find and delete any items you’d rather Google didn’t store – for example if the Assistant has accidentally activated during a personal conversation.
You may not realise, but you can already do this by voice. If the Assistant picks up something you’d rather it didn’t, try saying “Hey Google, that wasn’t for you” to have it remove the most recent thing it heard. You can remove more with commands like “Delete today’s activity” or “Delete this week’s activity”.
You can also remove things you’ve asked the Assistant to remember. Try saying “Hey Google, forget what I told you about the back door”. If you can’t remember what you’ve asked Google to remember, try asking “What did I ask you to remember?” to see a list.
Digital assistants can’t help you unless you allow them access to your data, and the Google Assistant is no exception. However, now you know how to view the information Assistant stores in your Google account, and manually or automatically delete it as you want to.
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