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Google's new magic number for storing personal data: 18 months

After years of adding more tools and settings, Google's changing its default settings for how long it stores user data.

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Eighteen months is Google's magic new number.

Image: Google / Protocol

After years of answering users' privacy worries mostly with more options and buttons most people will never find, Google made a big change to how it works by default.

Eighteen months is Google's magic new number: From now on, when someone sets up a Google account, by default their data will be set to autodelete after 18 months. The same goes for Google's Location History feature, which tracks users even when they're not using Google products. Google's not changing the policy for existing users, saying it doesn't want to change users' settings without their knowledge, but it does plan to remind them about their options. Anyone looking for a more stringent plan can set things to autodelete after three months instead.

Why those numbers? Google says that the three-month timeline is about recency: It's enough time to get context and have some relevant information about what you've been up to recently. The 18-month option is about seasonality, so people can find information about their taxes, get recommendations based on last year's TV shows, and the like. Both are designed to keep Google feeling personal and current, the company said, whereas a weeklong time frame might make that impossible.

Not all Google products get the same treatment, of course. YouTube data will now live for 36 months by default, since Google figures recommendation quality is particularly important there. Users can choose to delete after three or 18 months if they want. And there's no such setting for Gmail, Drive or Google Photos, which are explicitly designed to store things for a long time.

Google's also trying to make it easier for people to access their settings, like turning "Google Privacy Checkup" into a search term that takes you straight to that page in your account. It's making it easier to switch into Incognito Mode, too — though some users have found Incognito Mode to not be very incognito.

Sundar Pichai said in a blog post that Google continues to "challenge ourselves to do more with less," and Google executives talked a lot about the company's use of differential privacy to work with personalized data without identifying users. The company also proudly announced it's using differential privacy and federated learning to train the Gboard keyboard with more secure, less personal data.

But it's the defaults that really matter. Google said that 200 million people visit its account page every year, but even that is a small fraction of those with a Google account. Far fewer likely find the Data & Personalization tab, or know what to do with the checkboxes and checkups they find there. Google has collected many years of remarkably specific data on its billions of users, and has framed data collection as something like a necessary trade-off. "Data helps make search work better for you, and with autodelete, you can choose how long you want it to be saved," Pichai said at Google I/O in 2019. There was always a sliding scale between better products and better privacy. Now Google's indicating it's willing to work with much less, with no sacrifices.

The announcement was partly a sort of victory lap for Google, which has been touting its ability to store lots of data without compromising user privacy. It's also a clear signal to regulators, employees and others worried about Google's privacy. Pichai's blog post, which also talked about Google's policies with facial recognition, AI and video chat security, was the closest thing to a "don't be evil" manifesto the company has published in some time.

It's not likely to convince the employees petitioning Google to stop selling to police, or those worried about the company's power in the ad market or the role YouTube recommendations play in the spread of disinformation. But better defaults go a long way to helping users feel comfortable with the idea of Google products, especially as those users get more sophisticated about how their data is collected and used. And not for nothing, "we don't keep your data!" is a pretty good line for Pichai to use in the coming antitrust hearings.

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