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On Sunday, the New York Times published an eye-opening piece on how Google helps law enforcement identify potential suspects using a novel kind of search warrant. Beyond just turning over data on specific people, Google allows the police to look up anyone who’s been in a geographic area within a given period of time.

Law enforcement sources say that Google’s location data is just one tool among many, and that they still rely on corroborating evidence to arrest suspects, but trawling for criminals in this fashion inevitably snares innocent people as well. The Times describes one murder case in which Google’s data led the police to arrest one man, only to release him a week later after identifying a more likely suspect. That man lost his job and had his car repossessed in the process.

The Times’ story highlights the importance of maintaining your privacy, even when you have nothing to hide. While the odds of being wrongfully arrested for murder are pretty low, there are plenty of less extreme reasons why you’d want to lock down personal data. When Facebook loses personal information in a security breach, that data could in turn could help cybercriminals trick you into giving up more sensitive information, such as passwords or bank account details. When Google turns search results into targeted ads, it can lead to embarrassment or anguish when those ads dredge up your past. And when Amazon lets employees listen to Alexa recordings to improve the voice assistant’s algorithms, that’s just plain creepy.

Although no panacea exists for protecting your privacy from these tech giants, you can take some steps to limit what they know about you:

When possible, opt out: To stop Google Maps from collecting a record of everywhere you've been, head here and turn off (or "pause," as Google puts it) location history. Google will present a scary warning about how you'll miss out on certain features, like "helpful tips about your commute," but you'll still be able to use Maps as you normally would.

You can also stop Amazon from sharing voice recordings with its employees by heading to the Alexa Privacy page (you must be signed into your account before clicking that link), selecting "Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa," and turning off "Help Develop New Features." Again, you can safely ignore the warnings about how this will degrade your Alexa experience.

Delete your data: By default, Google retains a lifetime’s worth of data on your search history, voice utterances, and (on Android phones, at least) app usage. Delete this data periodically by clicking here, then selecting "All Time" under "Delete by date." Files you've explicitly stored with Google, like pictures in Google Photos or documents in Google Drive, won't be affected.

Amazon also lets you delete voice data from the Alexa Privacy page by clicking "Review Voice History," selecting "All History" under "Date Range," then selecting "Delete All Recordings for All History."

Unfortunately, neither company will wipe data automatically, so you'll have to remind yourself to repeat these steps on occasion.

Stay signed out: One way to limit how much data is tied to your Google, Facebook, and Amazon accounts is to avoid being signed into those services while you browse the web.

The simplest way to do this is to browse in an incognito or private window, which logs you out of all web services when you launch it. That's useful when searching for things you'd rather not have associated with your Google or Facebook accounts, like medical conditions or family gift ideas.

To take this a step further, my Fast Company colleague Michael Grothaus recommends a trick called browser compartmentalization, in which you use one browser to access accounts like Google and Facebook, and another for general web activity. The second browser will still retain your search history and bookmarks, but won't associate any data with the accounts in your first browser.

If you're using Firefox, the Facebook Container extension accomplishes the same goal automatically, keeping you logged out of Facebook and Instagram unless you're actually visiting those sites. A separate extension, called Multi-Account Containers, can also compartmentalize your activity, but it takes more work to set up. You must manually open a Container tab for logged-in sites like Google and Amazon, and avoid logging in outside of that tab.

Audit app access: From email clients that sell data for marketing purposes to online quizzes that fuel massive data harvesting operations, apps have lots of potential to run amok with data you've provided to tech giants. To see which apps can access this information--and revoke privileges for ones you don't trust or no longer use--head to the app management pages for Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Use apps with caution: Tech giants aren't the only companies looking to mine your data. As the Times has previously reported, some free apps like The Weather Channel and TheScore have sold users' location data to marketers, while apps that track women's menstrual cycles have been caught sharing data with Facebook.

You're probably not going to read the privacy policy for every app you download, and those policies might not give you a clear picture anyway. That's why I've come to believe in a "less is more" approach to third-party apps. Download only what you feel is essential, delete apps you've stopped using, and beware of sharing personal information with any app that doesn't explicitly promise not to share it.

Maybe stick to Apple hardware: It pains me to say this as someone who enjoys Android phones, but your privacy is easier to protect on Apple products. With an iPhone, for instance, you can stop apps from collecting location data when you're not using them (Google is only now developing similar controls for Android), and the platform prevents apps like Facebook from gathering certain personal information such as call logs. Android devices also send more data to Google than iOS devices do, and Apple TV is better at protecting your viewing data than Roku or Amazon Fire TV. While it's possible to protect your privacy on Android and other non-Apple platforms, you'll have to work a bit harder to do so.

More to come: Last week, an interesting new app called Jumbo popped up in the iOS App Store. Promising to be a sort of privacy concierge, the app can tighten up your Facebook privacy settings, remove old posts from Facebook or Twitter, and delete activity data from Google and Amazon. It's from the same folks that built Sunrise Calendar, an app that I loved before Microsoft bought and killed it, and it seems to work pretty well even in its early, feature-limited form. As digital privacy becomes a hotter topic, I suspect we'll start seeing a lot more tools like this. Stay tuned.
 

Over at Fast Company, I recently put together a list of 25 productivity apps and websites worth checking out this year. Keeping with this issue’s privacy theme, I’d like to highlight one in particular, called Leave Me Alone, which identifies junk email in your inbox and lets you unsubscribe to each source with one click.

Leave Me Alone isn’t the only tool for fighting email subscription spam, but unlike some other popular options like Unroll.me, Leave Me Alone doesn’t sell your email data to marketers. Instead, the service makes money by charging for more extensive cleanup. The free version can identify any junk mail you’ve received in the past three days, but if you want to look back further, it costs $3 for a one-week scan, $5 for a one-month scan, and $8 for a six-month scan. Those are one-time charges, not subscriptions, and the pricing seems pretty fair for the sanity it can bring to your inbox.
 

Google document scanning: Google Photos is adding a new feature that can automatically crop and rotate photos of paper documents. It’s reportedly rolling out now on Android devices, but I haven’t seen it appear on my end.

Not that it matters, as the Google Drive app for Android already offers a better way: Just hit the + button, then select "Scan," and you can take a picture that the app will crop and convert to PDF. You can even take multiple photos for multi-page documents. (I’m not sure why Google Drive for iOS doesn’t offer this, but Apple’s Notes app offer a similar feature. Just hit the + button, then select Scan Documents. You can then use the Share button to create a PDF version.)

Alexa’s news improvements: If you’re using an Amazon Echo or other Alexa device to hear the news, you can now ask for longer briefings from Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, Newsy, and NPR. Just say "Alexa, tell me the news from NPR," for instance, and you’ll get an in-depth reading from only that source. CNBC and Newsy will also show a video component on Alexa devices with screens, such as Amazon’s Echo Show. Presumably the list of news sources that support longer briefings will expand over time.

As a reminder, you can customize Alexa’s news briefings by opening the Alexa app, heading to Settings, and selecting Flash Briefing under Alexa Preferences. From there you can add, remove, and reorder the news sources that you want to hear when you say "Alexa, what’s my flash briefing?"

Apple’s sneaky subscription crackdown: In an apparent response to apps that trick users into unwanted subscriptions, Apple will now show an extra confirmation prompt before starting a subscription through the App Store. The prompt reminds you that the subscription will automatically continue unless you cancel, and requires you to press "OK."

As TechCrunch reported last year, the App Store is filled with apps that provide some basic utility, like document scanning or QR code reading, but charge high subscription prices after a brief trial period. If users aren’t paying attention when they set up the app, they could breeze through the trial authorization screen and not realize they’re getting charged. Some of these apps have even appeared in the App Store’s Top Grossing list, suggesting that the scam is working. While Apple does sometimes remove the worst offenders, an extra warning could help for the apps that slip through.

HomePod price cut: Apple has permanently dropped the price of its HomePod smart speaker from $350 to $300. I'm not going to read into this too much, though mid-cycle price cuts from Apple are pretty rare. I will note, however, that the HomePod was selling for as little as $250 during Black Friday, and you can buy open-box HomePods on eBay for $220.

Yank that USB drive: Microsoft has changed the way it handles USB storage drives in Windows 10, so you can pull them out of your PC without clicking "Safely remove hardware" first. You’ll no longer risk data loss in the process, though the trade-off is that file transfers can take longer because Windows isn’t caching the data while it’s being transferred or opened. ZDNet has instructions on overriding this setting if you’d rather keep the faster performance and are vigilant about hitting "Safely remove hardware," though you’ll have to change the settings for each drive you connect.
 

 
 
 

Those of you who haven’t cut the cord yet might be interested in TiVo‘s current sale on the Bolt OTA DVR. If you don’t mind a two-year contract, you can get the hardware for no money down and pay $15 per month for DVR service. Over two years, that's cheaper than buying the hardware outright at $250 and paying a lower subscription cost of $7 per month or $70 per year, and this way you pay nothing up-front. I would just mark your calendar for two years from now, and try to get the lower subscription rate from TiVo after that.

One other noteworthy deal this morning: Amazon has the Ecobee4 smart thermostat for an all-time low price of $175, which is $75 off the list price. I have an Ecobee3 at home, and it’s pretty nice being able to tweak the temperature while lying in bed or sitting in my office. The fourth-generation model adds built-in Alexa voice controls, which are nice to have, but not really necessary if you have other Echo devices nearby.
 

The New York Times story I mentioned atop this newsletter is part of a larger set of stories the paper is doing on digital privacy. They're worth checking out if you have time, especially the one about how the Times itself is grappling with data collection.

As always, I appreciate your support of this humble endeavor into ad-free, sponsor-free tech journalism. If you know anyone who'd enjoy Advisorator, refer them and you'll both get a $10 credit once they become a paid subscriber.

I'm going to be out of town for Passover later this week and for much of next week, so let's skip the live chat session this time around. If you have any tech questions, don't hesitate to reach out via email, and I'll answer as quickly as I can.

Until next time,
Jared

 
 
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