There’s a catchy saying that teaches a valuable lesson about our personal technology: the devil is in the default.
The term refers to the default settings that tech companies embed deep into the devices, apps, and websites we use. These settings usually require us to share data about our activities and location. We can usually opt out of this data collection, but companies put menus and buttons inconspicuously, presumably in the hope that we won’t change them right away.
Apple, Google, Amazon, Meta, and Microsoft generally want us to leave the default settings, presumably to train their algorithms and fix bugs, which then make their products easier for us to use. But unnecessary data sharing isn’t always in our best interest.
So with all the tech products we use, it’s important to take the time to explore the many menus, buttons, and switches to minimize the amount of data we share. Here’s a simplified guide to the many default settings that I and other tech writers change all the time.
With iPhones, users can open the Settings app and access the privacy menu to change how their app usage and location data is shared.
Select Tracking and disable apps from asking for tracking. This tells all apps not to share data with third parties for marketing purposes.
Select Apple Advertising and turn off personalized ads so Apple can’t use information about you to deliver targeted ads to its App Store, Apple News, and Stocks.
Select Analytics & Improvements and turn off Share iPhone Analytics to prevent iPhone from sending device data to Apple to improve its products.
Choose Location Services, tap System Services, and turn off iPhone Analytics and Routing & Traffic so the device doesn’t share geodata with Apple to improve Apple Maps.
Google products, including Android phones and web services such as Google Search, YouTube and Google Maps, are linked to Google accounts and the data management control panel is located on the website myactivity.google.com.
For all three categories—web and app activity, location history, and YouTube history—set auto-delete to delete activity older than three months. That way, instead of creating a permanent record of every search, Google purges records that are older than 90 days. In the near term, it can still make useful recommendations based on recent searches.
A bonus tip for Android phones comes from Rein Heger, editor of the tech blog Android Police: New versions of Android offer people the ability to share their approximate location, rather than their exact location, with apps. For many applications, such as weather software, sharing approximate data should be the solution, and accurate geodata should only be shared with software that needs it to function properly, such as mapping apps.
Meta’s Facebook page
Meta’s most important settings can be accessed through the Privacy Checker tool in the Settings menu. These are some important tweaks to avoid tracking by employers and marketers:
For “Who can see what you share,” choose “Only me” for people who have access to your friends list and the pages you follow, and choose “Friends” who can see your birthday.
In “How can people find you on Facebook”, select “Only me” for people who can find you by email or phone number.
For your Facebook advertising preferences, turn off the checkboxes for Relationship Status, Employer, Job Title, and Education. That way, marketers can’t target advertising based on this information.
Amazon website and devices
Amazon offers some control over how information is shared through its website and products like Alexa and Nest cameras. There are two settings that I recommend turning off:
Last year, Amazon launched Amazon Sidewalk, a program that automatically forces new Amazon products to share Internet connections with other nearby devices. Critics say Sidewalk could open the door for bad actors to gain access to people’s data.
To turn it off for an Echo speaker, open the Amazon Alexa app and tap More at the bottom right of the screen. Inside Settings, tap Account Settings, select Amazon Sidewalk, and toggle Sidewalk to the Off position.
For the Ring camera, in the Ring app, tap the three-line icon at the top left, and then tap Control Center. Tap Amazon Sidewalk and slide the switch to the off position.
On Amazon’s website, some shopping lists – such as items saved on a wish list – are shared with the public by default, which may constitute disclosure of information. Visit your lists page and make each shopping list private.
Windows computers come with many data sharing settings that are turned on by default to help Microsoft, advertisers, and websites learn more about us. You can find the toggles to turn off these settings by opening the Settings menu and clicking Privacy & Security and then General.
But Windows’ worst default setting may have nothing to do with privacy. When Kimber Streams, editor of Wirecutter, checks out new laptops, one of her first steps is to open the sound menu and select No Sounds to silence the many annoying chimes when something goes wrong with Windows.