Google follows Apple with a privacy overhaul, auto-deleting user data

On Monday at Apple’s WWDC, Apple (AAPL) executives stressed the company’s commitment to privacy and took multiple shots at Google (GOOG, GOOGL). 

The company spoke of it being one of its most important priorities and explained a foundation of thinking regarding its products, including data minimization, control, transparency, and on-device processing.

Two days later, Google CEO Sundar Pichai struck back with a defense of its privacy policies, and announced new improvements..

“As we design our products, we focus on three important principles: keeping your information safe, treating it responsibly, and putting you in control,” Pichai wrote on Google’s blog. “Today, we are announcing privacy improvements to help do that, including changes to our data retention practices across our core products to keep less data by default.”

A new privacy default with continuous auto-deletion 

Google has long had ways for users to limit data collection and delete history — location history, search, voice, and YouTube activity data — but it was typically an opt-out experience; the default was data collection, something that made its features possible (automatically remembering sites you often visit might be a useful thing to some).

Now, however, Google is switching to an auto-delete setup as its default for web browsing and app history.

For new accounts, if you turn on location history, locations will be deleted after 18 months. Similarly, web browsing and app activity will also be deleted automatically and continuously after 18 months by default. For YouTube history, history will be deleted after 36 months. Users will still be able to manually delete any history they want to, and users can also change the settings to never delete or delete after three months.

Google’s new auto-delete feature. (Google)

Google does not want to delete existing users’ data without asking, so these changes will only apply to new users. However, the company said it was going to push notifications and emails to users asking them to review their settings to take advantage of these new auto-delete features if they so choose. Google says it chose an 18-month default to ensure that seasonal or once-a-year activities are remembered.

The company is also expanding the popular Incognito Mode on Google Chrome to other apps, like Search, Maps, and YouTube.

Privacy, in Google’s view, isn’t just about privacy from itself, but from third parties, and the company is adding other features like security checkups with a new password checkup feature in accounts to let people know if a password is compromised or weak. This new feature comes on the heels of a similar Chrome extension the company offered.

Google also open-sourced its “differential privacy” features that allow companies to use user data in an anonymized fashion,

A different view of privacy than Apple’s

Pichai’s blog post explained Google’s commitment to privacy already, from keeping video calls secure and protecting against security threats. But the CEO also stressed the company’s restraint in not selling its facial recognition tech commercially and prohibiting its AI tools from being used for surveillance.

A “look what we didn’t do” approach might not be particularly compelling for privacy advocates, but it might be enough to stem some of the criticism of Google’s data collection, which it uses to serve targeted ads. The company, however, has managed to largely steer away from data collection controversy in the eyes of the public, unlike Facebook, though regulators have been looking into the search giant in the U.S. and Europe.

With features like this, Google may be able to take advantage of some of Apple’s “privacy as marketing,” though that may end up simply as a way to avoid criticism without any big changes — Google is giving users the option to change things, which requires them to care. By giving transparency and control to its users, it may not need to minimize its data collection to win the PR battle.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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