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How to defend your privacy online

Globe staff photo illustration; Adobe Stock

Even as Amazon and the tech giants Facebook and Google scoop up every available fleck of our personal data, they insist they really care about privacy.

And they mean it, up to a point. These companies know that simmering public outrage about the abuse of our personal data is bad for business. So they’ve loaded their products and services with privacy features, trusting that most of us won’t use them.

They’re probably right. But if you’re one of the few who value privacy enough to do something about it, here’s a far-from-complete list of smart moves you can make to protect your data:

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iPhone

Apple is the most privacy-centric of the tech companies. Still, every iPhone is a homing device. Its location-tracking feature is essential for accurate GPS navigation and weather reports. But it also means that others could monitor your movements.

Apple records only a few months’ worth of your location data and stores it on your phone, not on Apple’s own computers. You can wipe this information whenever you like. But other iPhone apps can also track your location. That makes sense for, say, a local-news app, but not so much for a game. The game company might try to sell your location data to a third party.

On the iPhone’s Settings menu, under the Privacy tab is Location Services, which lists every app that transmits your location. The settings show whether the app tracks you all the time, or only when in use. For each app you can switch location access on, or shut it off. Tell that videogame app that it doesn’t need to know where you are.

At the bottom of the menu is another option, System Services. Here you’ll find Significant Locations, a record of where you’ve been going lately that you can choose to keep or to delete.

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Android

As with the iPhone, Android’s location tracking lets app makers keep tabs on your movements. Android’s tools for dealing with this aren’t as precise as Apple’s. Still, you can turn the location service on or off for each app.

If you’ve owned an Android for five years, say, Google knows every move you’ve made during that time. Happily, Google lets you delete this data. In Google Maps, select Settings, then Map History. You can order Google to erase your map records and even tell it to stop recording data altogether.

You should also lock down your phone’s contact list, to prevent the phone’s apps from learning too much about your friends and colleagues. So go back to Settings and Apps and check the permissions list for apps that have access to your contacts. There’s a similar feature on the iPhone’s privacy page, which showed that only two apps on my iPhone wanted access to my contacts. On my Android phone, I found and shut down several such apps.

For more Android privacy tools, fire up a different product from Android’s owner, Alphabet.

At Dashboard, you’ll find privacy controls that help you manage your Android phone, your Google Internet searches, Maps location data, and practically ever other interaction with an Alphabet product.
At Dashboard, you’ll find privacy controls that help you manage your Android phone, your Google Internet searches, Maps location data, and practically ever other interaction with an Alphabet product. Ng Han Guan/Associated Press/File 2018/Associated Press

Google Dashboard

At Dashboard, you’ll find privacy controls that help you manage your Android phone, your Google Internet searches, Maps location data, and practically every other interaction with an Alphabet product.

Here you’ll find a history of all videos you’ve watched on YouTube, for example, photos you shot with your Android’s camera, and recordings of voice commands to Google Assistant.

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Google uses all of this to improve its services and to target you with more-relevant advertising. You can download a backup copy of this data for your records. Then you can delete some or all of it.

Maybe you want Google to track all your movements, but don’t want it to save your Internet searches. Google Dashboard lets you pick and choose.

Google just added a feature that will automatically delete your Google searches, your Google Maps location data, and information about the apps you use — after either three months or 18 months. It’s a set-and-forget approach that makes it easier to keep our data under control.

Chrome

Yes, it’s another Alphabet product — this time, the world’s most popular Web browser. And every time you fire it up, you may be sending a lot of sensitive information to Google. Chrome syncs all the different devices on which you use the browser, so users have access to bookmarks and saved passwords, regardless of how they access them. But sync also shares your personal data with Google’s cloud-based computers.

If you prefer privacy over convenience, go to your Chrome browser and switch off the auto-sync setting.

Google also said it will make it easier to identify and block the tracking cookies companies use to monitor which sites you visit. If you don’t want to wait for Google, consider using the free browser app Ghostery, which can automatically block such cookies.

Amazon’s hugely popular voice-control system is now embedded in dozens of common digital products — each capturing snippets of household speech and sharing them with the giant online retailer.
Amazon’s hugely popular voice-control system is now embedded in dozens of common digital products — each capturing snippets of household speech and sharing them with the giant online retailer.Mark Lennihan/Associated Press/File 2015/Associated Press

Alexa

Amazon’s hugely popular voice-control system is now embedded in dozens of common digital products — each capturing snippets of household speech and sharing them with the giant online retailer.

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Alexa is supposed to record only when a user says the wake-up word, but it sometimes hears a bit too much.

The Alexa app has a command to show all of your stored Alexa recordings. For extra privacy, delete them.

But on Thursday, the news site CNET reported that Amazon deletes the audio of your Alexa recordings, but retains a text transcript. The company said it’s working on a way to delete the transcripts, as well.

Alexa also allows you to set up a voice code, similar to the PIN number for your ATM card, so your kids don’t order 100 cases of Oreo cookies without you knowing.

Or you can completely block Alexa’s voice-driven purchasing feature.

Remember, there are many third-party voice-controlled Alexa apps, called “skills,” that might collect sensitive data. The Alexa app has a setup screen for monitoring them.

Facebook

Make sure your Facebook messages can be seen only by online friends, rather than by every Facebook user.

Also ensure that your list of online Facebook friends can’t be seen by strangers trolling your page.

For your Facebook profile, limit the details others can see. For instance, share your date of birth only with Facebook friends, not strangers. You can remove certain details altogether. And you can prevent your Facebook page from appearing in a Google search, making it a little harder to find you.

Do you use your Facebook password to log onto other websites? If so, you’re sharing too much information with Facebook. Start logging in with a nice neutral e-mail address, instead.

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You can also prevent Facebook from using facial-recognition software to identify you in other peoples’ pictures or stop the company from including your name in ads for products that you “liked” with a mouse click.

Of course, the simplest way to protect your privacy on Facebook is to be very selective about what you publish there, or don’t use it at all. But we all know that’s not going to happen, so you’d better head over to Facebook’s privacy page and start clicking.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.