How to limit Spotlight search to improve privacy in MacOS

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Maria Diaz/ZDNET

Let me set the stage: you have certain directories (aka folders) on your MacBook or iMac that contain sensitive information. You don’t want others to have easy access to these directories, but it turns out that with the help of Spotlight, anyone with access to your desktop can easily find the files and information inside.

That could be a problem.

For very sensitive information, it is best if you encrypt the directories that contain those files. But for less sensitive information, encryption might be overkill.

Or maybe you have so many files and directories on your desktop that Spotlight search isn’t quite as fast as you think.

In any case, you need to know how to prevent Spotlight from searching specific directories on your local drive. Let me show you how to take care of it. Because Spotlight is so good at what it does, it can very quickly display multiple results from a search query. This means that a bad actor can quickly find the files he needs to commit his mischief.

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With the help of this Spotlight trick, you can prevent such an easy and quick discovery of your more sensitive data.

How to restrict Spotlight search to improve privacy in macOS


All you need is an updated macOS device and a directory (or directories) that you want to exclude from Spotlight searches.

Hide directories from Spotlight

Click on the Apple icon on the left edge of the top bar and then select System Preferences.

In the System Preferences window, click Spotlight.

Click the Privacy tab, then click + (the plus sign).

The Spotlight privacy tab.

Add folders to be excluded from Spotlight.

Image: Jack Wallen

In the resulting popup, find and select the directory you want to exclude from Spotlight and click Select. Add more directories until you are satisfied with the results.

The macOS Finder window.

Locate the directory to exclude from Spotlight.

Image: Jack Wallen

Once you hide these directories from Spotlight, the content should no longer appear in search results. The only caveat is that it can take Spotlight some time to “forget” these folders. I’ve found that macOS doesn’t forget directories very quickly, and even a reboot doesn’t speed up the process. Eventually, however, these directories will no longer appear in the results.

An additional spotlight trick

Go back to the Spotlight Settings window and click the Search Results tab. Here is a list of categories that you can include or exclude in Spotlight. You can comb through this list and uncheck any category you don’t want to appear in Spotlight results. Again, note that Spotlight takes some time to forget about these categories after you’ve made changes.

The Spotlight search results tab.

Include and exclude categories for Spotlight searches.

Image: Jack Wallen

And that’s all there is to it. With these two little tricks, you can make it much harder for other people to find the files and information they don’t have access to.

However, remember to use an encryption tool for seriously sensitive directories and files to better protect those files from prying eyes.

Jack Wallen: Here’s how…

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