How to Opt Out of Google Home’s Tracking Features Staff Staff

Privacy and security have been major themes for Google in 2019. But the conveniences we enjoy, like finding our way through a new city with Google Maps, require (personal) data inputs. According to Sundar Pichai’s New York Times op-ed, advertising helps Google remain a free product, and it’s also what drives Google’s most useful services. Without sharing your personal data, you wouldn’t be able to book a rental car with Assistant or send an email through Gmail.

But Google’s recent privacy stance comes on the heels censorship and ethical controversies, including a “failure” to list its inclusion of the Assistant in the Google Nest Secure hub on the Google Nest spec sheet, and continuing to track users after they’d turned off location history settings.

While we did not receive a response from Google for this piece, we have been told in prior exchanges with spokespeople that the company “takes privacy and security seriously in all of its products, including the Google Assistant, and will not share information without user consent, except in the limited circumstances laid out in Google’s Privacy Policy.”

Jeremy Gillula, tech projects director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), says Google does a decent job of showing people the information it has on them, but that it has some room for improvement. “Google is one of the better companies at showing all the data they have about you, but it’s still buried really, really deep in privacy settings.” Google’s newest privacy features include easier access to privacy controls, auto-delete controls on location and activity data, and two-factor authentication on Android phones.

Understanding and fully digesting where your information is going and who’s using it can be difficult. Here are just a few of the ways you can personalize your Google data privacy at a level you feel comfortable (without completely abandoning the service).

Manage voice history

Similar to Amazon Alexa, Google Home uses your voice commands to train its algorithms to better respond to your requests. It doesn’t sell your information, but Google says Google Home will aggregate your search and location to help tailor responses more finely to your requests — like asking for the weather or setting an alarm based on a specific time zone. So, yes, Google sends the text of your voice transcripts (not your voice) to third-party developers, but you will have already agreed to this exchange by accepting the privacy policy. (Google says it “generally” doesn’t send the audio snippet to third parties.)

What the Google Home privacy policy doesn’t say, however, is that some Google employees do listen and transcribe some of your conversations with your Assistant, according to a report from VRT NWS.

So, is your Google Home “always listening?” Google says no. A spokesperson told us: “Hotword detection runs locally on the Google Home device and if the hotword is not detected, the audio snippet stays local on the device and is immediately discarded.”

It may be tough to keep tabs on where these transcripts are going at all times. For starters, you can browse and revise voice recording history under Data & Personalization on your Google Account.

Google's Data and Personalization settings

After finding Data & Personalization, click on “Manage your activity controls.”

Then, find Voice & Audio.

From here, you can delete recordings individually or all at once.

Google's Voice & Audio activity

Google will keep your voice recording history indefinitely until you decide to actively delete it.

Voice Match is another opt-in feature that enables your Google Home to learn your specific voice. This allows every member of the household to use the Google home in a unique way that fits their preferences, including TV, movies, and music.

Removing Google’s ability to recognize your voice will also require you to unlink your Google Account — “They’re tied,” in Google’s words.

Manipulate location tracking

Your Google Home will also use your location to help answer your questions. You wouldn’t be able to request the day’s forecast without it. Your location data can also be used to help tailor ads to your preferences based on where you are (like showing movie times near you). Google says Incognito Mode for Maps is on the horizon, and this would mean users could dissociate their Google accounts with location and map requests. This means you would have the option to use Google Maps without having your searches and requests linked to your account.

You can manage and delete location history under Data & Personalization or My Activity.

Google's location history settings
A map of Google's location history

Do note, though, that Google says some experiences may be degraded or lost by turning off location tracking, including real-time recommendations.

Change ad settings

Google’s Privacy & Terms document says it does use “information it collects” from you to inform advertisements. This includes exchanges between you and your Google Assistant, as Google says some transcripts of your requests to the Assistant may be used to personalize advertisements to you. You can manage ad settings for your Assistant here. You can turn off personalized ads in My Account as well, where you can also edit and block certain ads you’re seeing.

Google Assistant activity screen

Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science, where your information is going and who’s using it that are used to personalize content (specifically those of Google-owned YouTube) have a track record of perpetuating radical content. Google, on the other hand, says it won’t show you advertisements based on sensitive categories, nor will it share personally-identifiable information with advertisers.

Google Nest privacy

As Google further migrates into the home, privacy and security concerns on data that are extracted from home security systems have been in question. Google has outlined its “commitment” to privacy in the home, which includes bringing users clearer alerts on when devices like cameras and sensors are sending information to Google servers.

“And so we commit to you that for all our connected home devices and services, we will keep your video footage, audio recordings, and home environment sensor readings separate from advertising, and we won’t use this type of data for ad personalization,” Google wrote. “When you interact with your Assistant, we may use those interactions to inform your interests for ad personalization.”

But Gillula says he doesn’t put a lot of “stock” into this declaration. When Google acquired DoubleClick, an advertising network, in 2007, it said it would keep privacy at the forefront and DoubleClick databases separate from Google’s other databases — like Gmail — with personally-identifiable information. In 2016, Google redacted this privacy policy and stated that Gmail and other Google services would help inform advertising data.

DoubleClick database privacy policy

Source: ProPublica via Google

“They [Google] were saying that they were keeping the data they collected via their DoubleClick platform separate from information they would collect while you were logged into Google or something like that,” Gillula said, referencing Google’s old privacy policy. “And then they erased that line…I don’t think there’s any reason to trust them here.”

We reached out to Google for comment on how exactly this separation will work and didn’t receive a response. For now, opting out of ad personalization is still largely on you.

The bottom line

Google admits it also uses your information to help it improve as a service. However, some experts, like Gillula, contend this is a way to keep personal data for longer than necessary. “The danger if they’re keeping additional data is, of course, there could be a data breach — or the data could be used in some way that you didn’t expect it to be used or if you knew about you wouldn’t want it to be used.”

About the Authors

The staff is dedicated to providing you with all the deep-dive details. Our writers, researchers, and editors came together from Charlotte, Seattle, San Juan, Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, San Diego, and Chicago to put this review together.