by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
Have you ever searched for your personal information on Google? You might be shocked by what you find. I’m not just talking about your name – just about everyone Googles themselves from time to time. But you might also find your home address, phone number, email address, names of family members and other personal information that you might not want out there.
I’ve done this for years by entering my phone number or address in Google to see what I can find. But now Google has a tool that makes that much easier and also helps you request to have results that contain content information removed from Google Search.
You can start your search for personal information at goo.gle/resultsaboutyou. You’ll be asked to enter your email address, name, address and phone number. You can also enter additional names, addresses, phone numbers and email in case you use more than one. Google says that the information you enter is used to make sure it matches the results on web pages and that “It’s not shared or used to personalize your experience across other Google products.”
It may take several hours for Google to locate the information and, once it’s found, it shows up in a “results to review” tab. You can request to remove results that include your contact information by clicking on “Remove result” next to any results.
It’s important to know that removing a result from Google search doesn’t remove it from the internet. It may still be found through other search engines or by going directly to the page where the information is listed. You can try to contact that website to have the information removed or you can subscribe to a service like Norton Privacy Monitor that scans data broker or people-search sites and requests removal for you. In my experience, Norton’s Privacy Monitor does a good job with some well known and law-abiding data brokers, but it’s far from thorough when it comes to finding information on other sites.
SafeSearch & blurring explicit images
Google has also updated its SafeSearch feature. SafeSearch, which has been in place for many years, can be configured to block results from sites with explicit content like pornography and graphic violence. It’s often used by families to protect children and by companies to prevent employees from deliberately or accidentally accessing inappropriate content at work.
Google has recently introduced an update that, by default, will blur explicit images for all users, including adults. With these settings on, you can still find the image, but the blurring will prevent you from possibly being shocked or disturbed by what it depicts. This default can be turned off in case you want to see explicit images.
In an interview, Emma Higham, who works on child safety as a lead product manager for Google Search, said “All users of any age can be concerned about explicit images coming up. There is a really important need to balance access to information concerns against safety. What we found is that blurring is a really nice way to strike that balance.” She gave a personal example of having to research what to do about a second degree burn, which brought up blurred images that she then unblurred because the information was important to her.
She said they’re also making it easier for users to discover parental controls and other child protection service like Google Family Link directly from Google search. Higham said, “If you type in a query like Google Family Link or Google Parental Controls, you’ll now find a box at the top of search which tells you what Family Link is and gives you quick access to set it up or manage your child’s settings.”
Other useful Google privacy tools
Google has other tools that you can use to help protect your personal information. One is the Google Dashboard that lets you view and download your data from Google servers. This includes Gmail, your photos, places that Maps knows you’ve visited, Google News stories you’ve followed, YouTube videos you’ve posted, your calendars and more. Even if you’re not concerned about privacy, this can be a useful and even fun tool, enabling you to take a walk down memory lane. I especially like being able to review places I’ve been via Google Maps. I recently rediscovered a restaurant I went to years ago that I had forgotten about.
You can also export all of your Google data to be able to store it on your computer or backup drive, just in case you’re worried about it being deleted from Google’s servers or if you decide to delete it from Google but still have access to it.
Google also has a privacy controls page where you can manage your privacy settings such as whether Google will collect your location history and web, app, and search activity. You can also access Google’s My Activity page where you can view and delete your search history from the last hour, the last day or all time.
Another option is Google’s Privacy Checkup that makes specific recommendations. It’s a good start, but you might want to be more aggressive and delete additional content such as your Google searches, which can reveal very personal information, such as illnesses that you may have researched or people you’ve been checking out. There’s a way to delete your “shared endorsements” in case you want to avoid showing up in an ad or product recommendation. And you might consider limiting what people can see “about me.”
Google allows you to view and manage third-party apps that have access to your Google account. Sometimes connecting an app to Google can be very handy, but it could become a security issue, so it’s a good idea to check them on occasion and delete those that you are no longer using or are from companies that you don’t fully trust.
Google also lets you turn on or off personalized ads. It can be creepy or even triggering to see ads based on your previous searches or other activities, but sometimes these ads can be less boring than random ones that offer you things that don’t interest you. Either way, you’ll be seeing ads. Many of Google’s services don’t cost money to use, but you pay in other ways, through your time, attention and personal information.
Disclosure. Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives financial support from Google and other companies.