Technology columnist

On the Internet, the devil’s in the defaults.

You’re not reading all those updated data policies flooding your inbox. You probably haven’t even looked for your privacy settings. And that’s exactly what Facebook, Google and other tech giants are counting on.

They tout we’re “in control” of our personal data, but they know most of us won’t change the settings that let them grab it like cash in a game show wind machine. Call it the Rule of Defaults: 95 percent of people are too busy, or too confused, to change a darn thing.

Give me 15 minutes, and I can help you join the 5 percent who are actually in control. I dug through the privacy settings for the five biggest consumer tech companies and picked a few of the most egregious defaults you should consider changing. These links will take you directly to what to tap, click and toggle for Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple.

Some of their defaults are just bonkers. Google has been saving a map of everywhere you go, if you turned on its Assistant when you set up an Android phone. Amazon makes your wish list public — and keeps recordings of all your conversations with Alexa. Facebook exposes to the public your friends list and all the pages you follow, and it lets marketers use your name in their Facebook ads. By default, Microsoft’s Cortana in Windows 10 gobbles up … pretty much your entire digital life.

My inspiration for poring over the fine print was the European General Data Protection Act, or GDPR, that recently went into effect and prompted all those privacy policy emails. I asked the largest tech companies what they had changed — other than their legalese — about default settings or the amount of data they collect on us. The shocking answer: almost nothing. (Facebook is also rolling out new privacy controls but not actually changing your options … or even taking away many clicks.)

My suggestions are small acts of resistance — there are further settings, privacy-minded apps and Web browser add-ons that could take you on a deeper dive. (I’d love to hear what else has worked well for you.) Changing the defaults I list here means you’ll get less personalization from some services and might see some repeated ads. But these changes can curtail some of the creepy advertising fueled by your data and, in some cases, stop these giant companies from collecting so much data about you in the first place. And that’s a good place to start.


In the weeks ahead, Facebook will pop up in your News Feed with a call to review some settings. It won’t change your defaults — but it’s a good reminder you should change them by tapping manage data settings. (Facebook)

Facebook

Like skinny jeans, Facebook makes you share more than perhaps you ought to. It’s time to take a hard look at what you’re putting out there.

(Note: Facebook is rolling out new privacy settings on its mobile apps, but you may have not gotten them yet. They change the location of some controls on your phone but don’t change your choices.)

  • Anyone can see all your Facebook friends and all the weird pages you follow. That includes employers, stalkers, identity thieves and quite possibly your mother.
    • On your phone’s Facebook app, tap the button with three lines, then scroll to Settings & Privacy, then tap Settings and then Privacy Settings. Or use this link on the Web. Then switch Who can see your friends list from Public to Friends — or, even better, Only me.
    • Do the same on that same page with a separate setting for Who can see the people, Pages and lists you follow.
    • What you give up: Strangers being able to hunt you down or discover your interests.
  • I know what you did last summer … because when people tag you in a photo or post, it automatically shows up on your timeline.
    • In the Facebook app under Settings & Privacy, then Settings, then Timeline and Tagging (or at this link on the Web) switch On the option Review posts you’re tagged in before the post appears on your timeline.
    • What you give up: Letting others post on your behalf — at least until you approve each post.
  • Your face belongs to Facebook. By default, it scans all the photos and videos you share to create digital face IDs — unless you tell them hands off your mug.

Turn off these three settings that let Facebook advertisers use even more data to target you. (Facebook)

Don’t give it all away to Facebook advertisers, either. Reminder: Each member in North America was worth $82 in advertising to Facebook in 2017.

  • Advertisers can use very personal data to target you, making Facebook ads even creepier than they have to be.
    • In the Facebook app’s Settings & Privacy menu, tap Settings, then Ad Preferences (or use this link on the Web). Then tap open the section called Your information. There, switch Off ads based on your relationship status, employer, job title and education.
    • While you’re in Ad Preferences, head down to Ad settings and switch to Not allowed for Ads based on data from partners and Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere.
    • What you give up: More “relevant” ads, which is more of a problem for advertisers than for you
  • Surprise, you’re starring in Facebook ads! Did your check not arrive in the mail? Oh right: Just by “liking” a page, you give Facebook advertisers permission to use your name in ads they show your friends — and you don’t get a dime.
    • On your phone under Settings & Privacy, then Settings, then Ad Preferences (or at this link on the Web) tap open Ads Settings and switch to No One the setting for Ads that include your social actions.
    • What you give up: Use of your name by a company you might not actually care very much about.

Google


By default, Google's keeping a list of everything you search for — and every website you visit. Turn that off under Activity controls. (Google)

Google is the giant black hole of the tech world, sucking up as much personal data as it can get away with.

  • Google is keeping track of every phrase you've ever searched for, every site you’ve visited and every YouTube video you’ve watched … including the embarrassing ones.
    • On the Web, use this link to Google’s activity controls to turn off Web and App Activity.
    • While you’re there, scroll down and also turn off YouTube Search History and YouTube Watch History.
    • What you give up: You won’t be able to dig back up websites and videos you once visited, and Google’s systems won’t get to know you as well.
  • Google makes a map of everywhere you go that would make the CIA envious.
    • On the Web, at the same link for Google’s activity controls to turn off Location History.
    • There are several ways you might have turned on Location History. Google tells me that in the future, it will stop asking you to turn on this function when you initially set up its Assistant an Android phone. (Imagine that: a tech giant actually scaling back some data collection.)
    • What you give up: You won’t be able to walk down memory lane, and Google’s recommendations based on your travels won’t be as good.

While you’re at it, you can stop oversharing with Google’s advertisers.

  • Google helps marketers target you on Google-owned sites such as YouTube and Gmail.
    • On the Web, use this link for Ads Settings to turn off Ads personalization.
    • What you give up: You may see less “useful” ads, a concern for nobody anywhere ever.

Amazon

Amazon has grown from a bookstore to an everything store — to the maker of devices that listen and watch what’s happening around the house. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.)


Inside the Alexa mobile app, you can see, and delete, recordings of your conversations. Tap Settings, then History, then pick a conversation and tap Delete Voice Recordings. (Amazon)
  • Amazon keeps a recording of everything you’ve ever said to its talking artificial intelligence gadget Alexa — and also, we’ve learned recently, some things you didn’t intend to say to Alexa.
    • You can listen to what Amazon has recorded by going to the Alexa app, then tapping Settings, then History. There you can delete individual entries.
    • You can delete a whole bunch of recordings at once by logging into your Amazon account on the Web, then looking under Account and Lists settings and finding Manage your content and devices (or, just use this link). Find your Echo or other Alexa device in the list, then click manage voice recordings.
    • Amazon’s settings don’t offer as much as you might want: There’s no setting to stop Alexa from saving recordings in the future.
    • What you give up: An audio history of all your goofy questions for Alexa … or your children asking her to help with homework.
  • Here’s a fun idea next time you’re at a house party: Go up to an Echo speaker, and order its owner a 10-pound bucket of sea salt. Surprise! Anyone with access to your Echo speaker can order products on Amazon.
    • In the Alexa app on your phone, under Settings, scroll to Voice Purchasing, and turn it off — or at least put a voice code in place that your kids (or terrible friends) won’t guess.
    • What you give up: Super quick product ordering to feed your Prime addiction.

Your Amazon wish list is public by default. Open your list, then under share list, find the manage list setting and change it to private. (Amazon)
  • Your Amazon “wish list” is open to the public by default. Yes, it’s nice to buy someone a gift — but I’m doubtful everyone understands their wishes are open to everyone. You can search people by name at the link here.
    • Set your list to private by using this link clicking on your wish list, then clicking on the three dots next to the share list, then tapping manage list, then changing Privacy to Private.
    • What you give up: surprise presents you actually want from people who don’t really know you well enough to just ask.
  • Amazon knows more than Santa about what you’d like for Christmas. It keeps a log of every Amazon product you look at, not just the ones you buy.
    • Stop Amazon from tracking you by clicking Browsing History on Amazon’s homepage and clicking View and Edit (or just use this link), then clicking on Manage history, and turning it Off.
    • What you give up: Personalized recommendations for product categories you may or may not want your family members to know you were looking at.

Microsoft

Windows 10 isn’t just an operating system used by 700 million devices: It’s a training school for Microsoft’s less-well-known A.I., Cortana.

  • When you set up Windows 10, it suggests turning on Cortana — which means letting Microsoft collect your location, contacts, voice, speech patterns, search queries, calendar and messaging content.
    • If you don’t plan to use Cortana, decline it when you first set up your computer. Turning it off after the fact is much more complicated. There’s no single button, and some PCs put settings in different places. On most, you can open Cortana and click on its settings, then click on Permissions & History, and then individually turn off everything. Also turn off what’s listed under Manage the information Cortana can access from this device. Then go to Cortana, click on the Notebook icon, then click on your Microsoft account and log out.
    • That stops Cortana from collecting future data. To delete what it already knows, point your Web browser to your Microsoft Privacy settings page and click view and clear on various types of data it has collected. Also go to the Cortana tab and tap Clear Cortana data.
    • What you give up: another talking virtual assistant.
  • Windows helps advertisers track your PC using an anonymous ID.
    • Go to Settings, then Privacy, then General, and turn off Let apps use advertising ID to make ads more interesting to you based on your app usage.
    • What you give up: “More interesting” ads that probably weren’t going to be very interesting in the first place

(Apple)

Apple

Apple has a carefully-honed reputation for respecting privacy. But it still makes accommodations for online ad targeting — and you have to know where to look to stop it.

  • The iPhone shares an anonymous ID for advertisers to target you.
    • To stop it, go to your iPhone’s Settings, then Privacy then Advertising, and switch on Limit Ad Tracking.
    • This will affect Apple-made apps, ads served via Apple’s advertising system and apps that use the iPhone’s Advertising Identifier.
    • What you give up: You might get less “relevant” ads, and possibly some repeated ones.

Read more tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler:

Here's what you need to know about the new Gmail

Why you cannot quit Amazon Prime — even if maybe you should

Google wants to cure your smartphone addiction