How to limit Spotlight search to improve privacy on MacOS

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Maria Diaz/ZDNET

Let me set the stage: You have certain directories (also known as folders) on your macbook either iMac that contain sensitive information. You don’t want others to have easy access to those directories, but it turns out that with the help of Spotlight, anyone with access to your desktop can easily find the files and information on it.

That could be a problem.

With very sensitive information, it would be best to encrypt the directories that contain those files. But for less sensitive information, encryption can be overkill.

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

Either way, you need to know how to prevent Spotlight from searching for specific directories on your local drive. Let me show you how to take care of that. Because Spotlight is so good at what it does, it can present multiple results for a search query very quickly. That means a bad actor could quickly locate the files he needs to pull off whatever mischief he’s up to.

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With the help of this Spotlight trick, you can prevent such simple and quick discovery of your most sensitive data.

How to limit Spotlight search to improve privacy on MacOS


All you need for this is an up-to-date MacOS device and a directory (or directories) that you want to exclude from Spotlight search.

Hide directories from Spotlight

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

From the System Preferences window, click Spotlight.

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

Spotlight's Privacy tab.

Addition of folders to be excluded from Spotlight.

Image: Jack Wallen

In the resulting pop-up window, browse to and select the directory you want to exclude from Spotlight and click Choose. Keep adding directories until you are satisfied with the results.

The macOS Finder window.

Locate the directory to be excluded from Spotlight.

Image: Jack Wallen

Once you’ve hidden those directories from Spotlight, the content should no longer appear in search results. The only caveat is that it can take a while for Spotlight to “forget” those folders. I’ve found that MacOS isn’t very quick at forgetting directories, and even a reboot doesn’t speed up the process. Eventually, however, those directories will stop showing up in the results.

An additional Spotlight trick

Go back to the Spotlight Preferences window and click the Search Results tab. Here you will find a list of categories that you can include or exclude from Spotlight. You can review this list and disable any categories you don’t want to appear in Spotlight results. Again, keep in mind that once you’ve made changes, it will take a while for Spotlight to forget those categories.

The Spotlight Search Results tab.

Including and excluding 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 more difficult for other people to locate files and information that they don’t have access to.

Remember though, for very sensitive files and directories, consider using an encryption tool to better protect those files from prying eyes.

Jack Wallen: Here’s how…

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