Delete your private data automatically

Here's how to make files, messages and other data vanish automatically after a specific length of time

Auto-delete your activity data from Google

Google is notorious for hanging onto our personal information for longer than is necessary. The company claims that its data-hoarding tendencies are for our own benefit because they enable it to offer us more relevant search results, recommendations and, of course, adverts. Until recently, if you wanted to delete data from your Google account, you had to do so manually, but now new options let you remove at least some of your personal information automatically.

You won't be surprised to hear that the auto-delete controls are disabled by default. To activate them, log into your Google account and click 'Manage your data & personalisation', then 'Manage your activity controls' to access your 'Activity controls' page (you may also see a 'Turn on Auto-delete' link at the bottom of the Google homepage).

The first section is for Web & App Activity, and contains details of the things you do on Google services such as search, Maps and the Play store, as well as information taken from your Chrome history. Click Manage Activity, then 'Choose to delete automatically' and decide how long you want Google to keep hold of your data: for three months, 18 months or until you delete it manually. Click Next, then Confirm to save your preference.

Back on the 'Activity controls' page, select Manage Activity under Location History. Google uses your phone or tablet to track and store details of where you've been, even when you're not using a specific Google service such as Maps.

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The information appears as a timeline and a map of all the places you've been. Click the cog in the bottom-right corner of the map, choose 'Automatically delete Location History' and select your preference.

Google also now lets you delete your YouTube History automatically after three or 18 months. This stops the site storing details of all the videos you've searched for and watched, and making 'suggestions' based on your viewing habits.

Ask Alexa to delete your voice data

Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft have all admitted that their voice assistants record, store and share our spoken commands – although they've since revised their policies of letting human contractors review audio snippets. To address the privacy concerns of customers who use its Echo smart speakers, Amazon now lets you automatically delete all voice data that Alexa captures. You can do this in the Alexa app for Android and iOS by going to Settings, Alexa Privacy, Manage Your Alexa Data. Under 'Manage your voice recordings', turn on the option 'Automatically delete recordings' and choose whether to auto-delete data after three or 18 months. Alternatively, log into the Alexa Privacy Hub in your desktop browser (bit.ly/alexa487) and activate the feature there.

Amazon has also introduced a new voice command, "Alexa, delete everything I said today", to wipe everything you've asked the voice assistant since midnight. To use this option, open the Alexa app, go to Settings, Alexa Privacy, Review Voice Data and choose 'Enable deletion by voice'.

Similarly, for concerned Google Assistant users, Google promises that it will "soon automatically delete the vast majority of audio data associated with your account that's older than a few months". In the meantime, you can now say "Hey Google, delete the last thing I said to you" or "delete everything I said to you last week" to erase that data permanently.

Delete your browsing data automatically

When you use your browser's incognito mode, your computer doesn't store details of the sites you've visited, but it's easy to forget that this handy tool exists, and deleting data manually at the end of every session is a hassle.

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If you're really concerned about your privacy, you can set your browser to delete cookies and other site data automatically every time you close it.

In Chrome, click the menu button, choose Settings, then scroll down and click Advanced. In the 'Privacy & security' section, select 'Site settings', 'Cookies and site data' and activate the option 'Clear cookies and site data when you quit Chrome'. If that sounds too drastic, you can opt to delete only data for specific sites by adding their URLs to the 'Clear on exit' list.

To delete your browsing history whenever you exit Firefox, click the hamburger icon in the top-right corner to open the main menu, and choose Options, Privacy & Security. In the History section, either select 'Never remember history' from the drop-down menu or choose 'Use custom settings for history' to retain some data (such as search and form history) while clearing the rest.

Empty your Downloads folder automatically

It's easy to forget that the Downloads folder in Windows contains all the files you've downloaded from the web until you delete them manually or move them elsewhere, and that these may include private documents, photos and videos. Likewise, files you've sent to the Recycle Bin remain there until you empty it. You can use Windows 10's built-in Storage Sense feature to ensure these items don't fall into the wrong hands.

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Open the Settings app from the Start menu and select System, Storage, then move the Storage Sense slider to On. Click the link 'Configure Storage Sense or run it now' and choose how often you want to perform a cleanup: every day, week or month, or when you're short of disk space. In the Temporary Files section, specify when Storage Sense should delete files from your Recycle Bin and Downloads folder, such as when they're 14, 30 or 60 days old. The feature works automatically and wipes all files from those folders, so take extra care to ensure you don't lose anything important. You can also access these 'Activity controls' using the Google app on your Android or iOS device. Go to More, Search Activity to switch on automatic deletion for Web & App Activity, then tap the menu button and choose 'Activity controls' for Location History and YouTube History.

If you'd rather Google didn't gather data about you in the first place, you can switch off its activity controls one by one. However, doing this only 'pauses' data collection, so you still have to delete your history manually for each Google service. Google says it will bring auto-delete controls to all its tools in due course.

Delete private files automatically after sharing

Sharing private files over the internet always requires a degree of trust – not only because they might be intercepted en route, but because you're relying on the recipient to be careful with them and to delete them if requested. Firefox's file-sharing service Send, which launched in March, gives you added peace of mind by offering end-to-end encryption for file transfers and letting you create download links that expire after a specific length of time or number of downloads. This helps to ensure that whatever you share remains private and doesn't stay online indefinitely.

Firefox Send couldn't be easier to use. Simply drag and drop your files, or click to upload them from your hard drive, then specify when the shared link should expire. You can set it to deactivate after between one and 100 downloads or a period from five minutes to seven days. For added security, you can protect your files with a password. Click Upload, then copy the link into the messaging service of your choice.

You can send up to 1GB of files without registering with Firefox Send, but signing up for a free account increases this limit to 2.5GB. Despite its name, Firefox Send works in any browser, and there's also a free app for Android.

Set your sensitive emails to self-destruct

Email is not the most secure means of communication available. Even if you remove a sensitive message from your Sent folder, it will linger in the recipient's inbox until they choose to delete it. For this reason, when you need to share confidential information with someone by email, it's wise to send it in a message that self-destructs after a specific period of time.

Google added this useful feature to Gmail last year as part of the webmail service's new Confidential mode. To use it, compose a message as you usually would, then click the padlock-and-clock icon on the bottom toolbar to activate Confidential mode. Click the drop-down Set Expiry menu, choose when you want the email to self-destruct – from one day to five years – then click Save and Send. You can access the same option in the Gmail mobile app by tapping the three-dot menu in the top right.

The recipient won't be able to forward, copy, download or print your email, either, and for extra security you can lock the message with a code that they receive separately by SMS.

Send self-destructing content from your phone

If you need to send passwords or other private information to people from your phone, the 'Secret chats' feature in Telegram ensures that this data remains secure. Secret chats not only offer end-to-end encryption but also stop recipients forwarding your content and let you set messages, photos, videos and other files to self-destruct a certain time after they've been read or opened.

Start a new secret chat, select the recipient and set the self-destruct timer by tapping the clock icon and choosing the desired time limit. Now when you send a message or file, it disappears as soon as the timer has elapsed.

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Facebook Messenger offers a similar 'secret conversation' option. Open a normal conversation with the person you want to share private data with, then tap the 'i' info button and choose 'Go to secret conversation'. Like Telegram, Messenger lets you send messages, photos and videos in secret conversations, but not other file types. To set the self-destruct timer, tap the stopwatch icon and choose a period of time after which you want your messages to auto-delete. The words 'disappearing message' appear in the text-input field before you start typing, to show you that this feature is active.

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