There’s a certain irony to Chromebooks. On one hand, Google is hardly a company most people would associate with privacy. On the other, Chromebooks are easy to lock down. With a few tweaks, they can provide a relatively safe way to get online. And that’s without installing anything.
So how do you configure Chrome OS to guard your privacy? Here are some steps that are easy to take. These tips also apply if you’re using Google Chrome on Windows or MacOS, though the settings may vary.
1. Disable These “Privacy and Security” Settings
Google has built several features into Chrome intended to improve your web browsing experience. The catch is that these services involve sending data to the company’s servers, which it can add to your user account. Google then analyzes your data in order to sell increasingly personalized ads.
Some of these features send data to Google every time you enter a letter into the navigation bar.
This means Google gets to see everything you search for and every website you visit, whether or not you use the Google search engine, and even if you change your mind and decide not to visit a site or start a search. Are you comfortable with Google knowing that much about you?
You can disable these options by opening Chrome settings and going to the Privacy and security section.
Features to disable:
- Use a prediction service to help complete searches and URLs typed in the address bar or the app launcher search box
- Use a prediction service to load pages more quickly
- Use a web service to help resolve navigation errors
- Help improve Safe Browsing
- Automatically send diagnostic and usage data to Google
- Use a web service to help resolve spelling errors
2. Enable “Safe Browsing” and “Do Not Track”
Under Privacy and security, there are also a few settings you will likely want to enable.
Safe Browsing is one of them. This feature can prevent certain malicious or poorly secured sites from opening in your browser.
Do Not Track is another. Websites sometimes monitor your behavior. They may know how much time you spend on any given page and what type of information most interests you.
Sometimes they do this to provide you with a better experience, but in the process, they’re able to build a profile that you might prefer they didn’t have. With Do Not Track enabled, you’re telling websites not to track your behavior. Will all of them listen? No. But some might.
3. Disable or Encrypt Data Syncing
Web browsers may primarily serve to connect us to the web, but your bookmarks and browsing history are typically saved on your computer. You don’t have to store everything online. If you enable syncing, you’re taking data from your computer and giving it to Google. Disable syncing to keep a copy off of Google’s servers.
You can disable syncing by going to People > Sync. There you can turn off Sync everything and untoggle various categories.
If you use numerous devices and value having your browsing data synced across all of them, you can instead choose to encrypt all of your synced data with a passphrase. You can find this option underneath all of the toggles mentioned above.
Chrome will ask you to create a passphrase that you will need to enter on every device you choose to sync. To keep this data private, make sure the passphrase is not the same as the one you choose for your Google account. This way Google’s servers will store your data, but the company won’t have the passphrase needed to decrypt your files.
Warning: Be careful not to forget your passphrase. Since your passphrase is not stored online, Google cannot help you recover it. This means you will lose your synced data.
4. Disable Location Tracking
Websites can get an idea where you live from your IP address, but with location tracking, they can get your exact location. You can manage location tracking under Privacy and security > Content settings > Location.
Initially, Chrome will ask if you want to allow a site to access your location. The browser will keep a list of all the sites your permit or deny. But more often than not, you can use the web just fine by blocking this functionality entirely.
You can use Google Maps and similar sites by entering your address manually, just like in the days before our devices came with GPS built-in.
5. Don’t Save Addresses and Payment Methods
Whether you love the internet or prefer to stay offline, these days it’s hard to avoid filling out online forms. Chrome will try to make this task easier for you by remembering information you fill out often, such as your email address, your physical address, phone numbers, and credit cards.
As tempting as this may be, it means you’re creating a record of your personal information that isn’t necessary. Even if you disable syncing, someone with access to your computer can peak at this information. This could be dangerous if you leave your computer in a public place, but it can also lead to unintended consequences when sharing your device with friends or family members.
You can tell Chrome not to remember most of this information by going to People > Addresses and more.
To stop Chrome from storing your credit cards, go to People > Payment methods. Both locations allow you to delete any information that Chrome may have already stored.
6. Limit Cookies
Cookies are important for sites that let you sign into an account or add items into a cart.
But sites can store whatever they want in these files. So can ad networks. That’s why it’s a good practice to limit which cookies are permitted onto your computer.
To do this, go to Privacy and security > Content settings > Cookies. Enable Block third-party cookies. To better cover your tracks, you can also enable Keep local data only until you quit your browser, but know that this means you will have to sign into sites again the next time you open Chrome.
You can see all of the cookies Chrome has saved by selecting See all cookies and site data. Here you can delete cookies one at a time or clear them all.
7. Change Default Search Engine
Chrome defaults to the Google search engine. That provides Google with every search that we enter into the navigation bar. This information is so personal, it means Google knows certain things about us that would surprise our loved ones or closest colleagues.
You can cut Google off from this information by changing your default search engine. You could try Bing, if you prefer, though that requires giving your data to Microsoft rather than Google. Alternatively, you can try a search engine that prioritizes privacy.
You can change your default search engine by going to Search and Assistant > Manage search engines. You can also get here by right-clicking the navigation bar and selecting Edit search engines… in the context menu.
Under Search and Assistant, you also have the option to change “Search engine used in the address bar.” You can also choose to disable Google Assistant, if your computer supports that feature.
Other Steps You Can Take
These tips will greatly reduce the amount of information you put online, but it won’t stop all data collection. It’s still possible for others, including your Internet Service Provider, to monitor your browsing habits.
If you want to further guard your privacy, consider changing your DNS settings as well as using a VPN. (MakeUseOf readers can save 49% on our favorite VPN service, ExpressVPN!)
Let’s not stop with your browser and network settings. If you own a Chromebook, then you likely have a Google account. You’ve probably already given Google quite a bit of data. Fortunately, Google is somewhat transparent about what it collects. You can take a look at your account and limit what data Google can access.