There’s a catchy saying going around with a valuable lesson about our personal technology: The devil is in the defaults.
The saying refers to the default settings that tech companies embed deep into the devices, apps, and websites we use. These settings typically allow us to share information about our activities and location. We can usually forgo this data collection, but the companies make the menus and buttons hard to notice, probably hoping we don’t change them right away.
Apple, Google, Amazon, Meta, and Microsoft generally want us to leave some default settings on, ostensibly to train their algorithms and find bugs, making their products easier for us to use. But sharing data unnecessarily is not always in our interest.
So with every tech product we use, it’s important to take the time to go through the many menus, buttons, and switches to minify the data we share. Here’s a streamlined guide to many of the defaults that I and other tech writers always change.
iPhones allow users to open the Settings app and access the privacy menu to change how they share data about their app’s usage and location.
Select Tracking and toggle Allow apps to disable tracking requests. This tells all apps not to share data with third parties for marketing purposes.
Select Apple Advertising and disable Personalized Ads so that Apple cannot use information about you to serve targeted ads in the App Store, Apple News, and Stocks.
Select Analytics & Improvements and turn off iPhone analytics sharing to prevent iPhone from sending device data to Apple to improve its products.
Select Location Services, tap System Services and disable iPhone Analytics and Routing & Traffic to prevent the device from sharing 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 control panel for customizing data management is located on the website myactivity.google.com.
For all three categories — Web & App Activity, Location History, and YouTube History — you set auto-delete to delete activity older than three months. In this way, instead of keeping a permanent record of every search, Google removes items that are more than 90 days old. In the short term, it can still make useful recommendations based on recent searches.
A bonus tip for Android phones comes from Ryne Hager, an editor of the tech blog “Android Police”: Newer versions of Android allow people to share an approximate location rather than their precise location with apps. For many apps, such as weather software, sharing estimated data should be the way to go, and precise geo data should only be shared with software that needs it to work properly, such as mapping apps.
The most important settings of Meta can be reached via the privacy checkup tool in the settings menu. Here are some key adjustments to avoid snooping by employers and marketers:
For “Who can see what you share,” select “Only Me” for people with access to your friends list and pages you follow, and select “Friends” for who can see your birthday.
Under ‘How people can find you on Facebook’, choose ‘Only me’ for people who can find you by email or phone number.
For “Your ad preferences on Facebook,” turn off the switches for relationship status, employer, job title, and education. This way, marketers won’t be able to show targeted ads based on this information.
Amazon Website and Devices
Amazon offers some control over how information is shared through its website and products such as Alexa and Nest cameras. There are two settings that I highly recommend turning off:
Amazon last year launched Amazon Sidewalk, a program that lets newer Amazon products automatically share Internet connections with other nearby devices. Critics say Sidewalk can open doors for bad actors to access people’s data.
To disable it for an Echo speaker, open the Amazon Alexa app and tap More at the bottom right of the screen. In the settings, tap Account Settings, choose Amazon Sidewalk and turn Sidewalk off.
For a Ring camera, in the Ring app, tap the three-line icon in the top left corner, then tap Control Center. Tap Amazon Sidewalk and slide the button to the off position.
On Amazon’s website, some shopping lists — such as items on a wish list — are shared with the public by default, which can reveal information. Go to the Your lists page and set each shopping list to private.
Windows PCs come with many data sharing settings turned on by default to help Microsoft, advertisers, and websites learn more about us. The toggles to disable those settings can be found by opening the settings menu and clicking on Privacy & Security, then General.
Still, the worst default setting on Windows may have nothing to do with privacy. Whenever Kimber Streams, a Wirecutter editor, tests new laptops, one of their first steps is to open the sound menu and select No Sounds to mute the many annoying ringers that play when something goes wrong with Windows.