Tweak Your Microsoft and Google Privacy Settings

Category: Privacy

Lots of people are worried about what information Microsoft, Google and other companies are collecting about them as they use the Internet, and how that data is being used. Read on to learn about the tools that Microsoft and Google offer to let you view and change your privacy settings...

Managing Your Privacy Settings

After writing about five Windows 10 privacy issues and AVG's new privacy policy, I decided to look into Microsoft and Google accounts to see what privacy concerns lurk in them, and how to turn off unwanted privacy invasions.

I discovered what I might have guessed before starting: they don’t make it easy! Sure, both companies provide dashboards where users can configure certain privacy settings. and Google has its “My Account” page. But in both cases, privacy options are buried several screens down, are not explained clearly, and in sometimes don’t work as advertised.

Let's start with the Microsoft “Security & Privacy” page, which puts “Security” first: changing password, parental controls, Bing SafeSearch filters, etc. Scroll down a screenful to begin exploring privacy options. Here are my suggestions:
Online Privacy Settings

Clicking on Clear Bing search history leads to a page where you can do that, and also turn off future “remembering” of your search history. Do both if you don’t want your search history saved on Microsoft servers.

Manage permissions, on the right-hand side of the screen, lets you view any apps you may have authorized to access your contacts, calendar, and other data. You can revoke such permissions here.

Scroll down to the Marketing and Advertising sections. Microsoft says there, “You're in charge of what product info you get from us and our partners.” But boy, do they make you work for it!

What's Your Preference?

Account marketing preferences is a simple checkbox option; uncheck the box and you won’t get “promotional offers from Microsoft.”

But now try More marketing preferences. Here you can store addresses and phone numbers for home, work, billing, shipping, etc. For each address or phone number, Microsoft has checked the box that gives it permission to contact you. Remember to uncheck it if you don’t want hear about Microsoft products, services, and events via phone, email or postal mail. And tink hard before checking the box that allows Microsoft to "share or use (your) details with Microsoft Partners," thus granting an unlimited number of third-party companies permission to contact you.

Cunningly, Microsoft does not display the status of these checkboxes on the My personal information summary page. You have to click the “edit” link next to each address or phone number to see who has permission to contact you. After making changes, click the tiny "(save)" link.

Ad preferences is where you can opt-out of receiving “interest based” ads from Microsoft. You will still receive ads from Microsoft; they just won’t be “personalized” using Microsoft’s knowledge of your interests and online activity. Also, Microsoft will continue collecting information about your interests and online activity, and may put it to other uses besides personalizing ads.

You’ll have to visit several other sites to learn how to opt out of “interest based” ads from Microsoft partners. The Digital Advertising Alliance (DAI) shown on Microsoft’s “Ad preferences” page is supposed to let you opt-out of “interest based” ads from 125 companies in just one operation. But only 40 of them responded to my repeated attempts to opt-out of all networks in one operation. The rest are experiencing chronic “technical difficulties,” according to the DAI. Hopefully, that means 85 ad networks are out of business; but I doubt it.

Just to torment users who want to avoid advertising, Microsoft includes one more link to nowhere. “You can control interest-based advertising in Windows apps by turning off the advertising ID in Windows Settings.” Click on “advertising ID” and you’ll go to page 1 of Microsoft’s labyrinthine privacy statement. The phrase “advertising ID” appears just once there, and there is no information about how to turn it off.

In short, controlling your privacy is an exhausting and possibly futile exercise with Microsoft. Let’s see if Google is any better.

Google’s “My Account” Dashboard

Launched in June, 2015, Google’s “My Account” page is the one-stop place to review and tweak Google account settings across multiple end-user devices and Google services. The Personal Info & Privacy page will be our main focus here.

If you have provided a phone number to Google, say for account recovery or two-factor login authentication, it may be used by anyone who already knows it, to find your Google+ profile, start a Hangouts chat with you, or connect with you via other Google services. Uncheck the box on this page to disable that feature. (Just to clarify, Google isn't sharing your phone number with others. They're just allowing people who already have it to contact you via their online tools.)

Location Settings is at the very bottom of the Google+ Settings page. This feature is rather tricky when enabled. Google explains,

You can share your current location with the people and circles you choose across Google products such as Google+ and Google Now. You can share your pinpoint or city-level location, and you can share different things with different circles. For example, you can share your precise location with family, but share only what city you’re in with your co-workers.

Uncheck the Enable Location Sharing box if you’d rather not spend much time managing Google+ circles.

Just above Location Settings is the Profile settings section. Here you can uncheck boxes to hide from public view your Photos, YouTube and Google Videos movies that you’ve watched, reviews you have written and +1s you’ve left for products, posts, and other things.

Shared Endorsements in Ads has been a sore point with users since Google introduced it in 2013. If you leave a +1 or write a review for a product or service while logged in to a Google account, Google may use that endorsement and your Google+ profile photo in ads that it shows to millions of others. Uncheck the box on this page to keep your face and endorsements out of ads. But if you want to control which circles of family, friends, and acquaintances can see your endorsements, you’ll have to tweak the settings on each endorsement you leave.

Verrrry Interesting!

Ad Settings were a real eye-opener for me. My “interests” do not include “make-up & cosmetics,” “TV reality shows,” or “Brazilian music,” to name just three wild misses that Google inferred from my online activity. Fortunately, one can uncheck interests and add others manually, hopefully improving the relevance of ads that Google displays.

Below Interests is a button for toggling interest-based ads on or off on Google sites only (Gmail, YouTube, etc.). It does not affect the text ads that appear next to Google Search results. To toggle interest-based ads on Google Search, and more, click the Control Signed Out Ads button at the bottom of the Ad Settings page.

None of the ad settings provided by Microsoft or Google will make ads disappear. In fact, you may see slightly more ads, and any relevance to your interests (real or inferred) will be sheer coincidence, if you fiddle with the interest-based ad settings. So you may want to leave well enough alone.

Overall, it’s pretty discouraging to see the many ways in which a Microsoft or Google account can complicate one’s quest for online privacy and security. But that's always been the implied bargain for free online services. At least some of the bigger players are attempting to shed light on what data is collected, how it's used, and what you can do about it.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Tweak Your Microsoft and Google Privacy Settings"

Posted by:

29 Sep 2015

DuckDuckGo keeps your searches private without even getting Google or Bing involved with your stuff.

Posted by:

Bob K.
29 Sep 2015

Thanks Bob, for another helpful article.
Under Google's "My Account" I have a profession listed, that I've never done, a place of business, where I've never worked, and a city of my dwelling, where I haven't lived in over 15 years. I love it, as I didn't have to change a thing :-)

Posted by:

29 Sep 2015

Bob, one thing that is not clear in your explaination is the effect of being logged into (or not being so) one's Microsoft or Google account.
On all my Windows PCs I only use a local account, even for Windows 8 and 10, and am only logged into my Google account when getting mail. I'm carefull to log out of any accounts when done with them.
I assume being logged into an account gives Microsoft and Google a much better handle on who I am and what I do - but I'm also sure they (and others!) still track me when not logged in to those accounts.
Besides not getting on line at all, are there ways to control that tracking?

Posted by:

29 Sep 2015

Once again Bob another great article. Thanks very much. Mike

Posted by:

Philip Dischert
29 Sep 2015

Another helpful article Bob. I took most of your advice from a previous article regarding the Win 10 upgrade.

Another thing that I've done is NOT engage any participation in "the cloud". That includes Adobe, Microsoft, my Calendar, Contact list etc. Everything is on my local drives and is backed up regularly. IMO I see no need to further risk my privacy (which is already shakey at best) by dumping all my private and personal data to "the cloud".

Posted by:

29 Sep 2015

great article Bob I have never let google or MS collect anything as I have known for years google is the worst for personnel info

Posted by:

29 Sep 2015

AVG's new plain language and open-ness are looking better all the time when compared with the obfuscation we are generally having to deal with.

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Tweak Your Microsoft and Google Privacy Settings (Posted: 29 Sep 2015)
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