Now’s Your Chance To Spy On Google

Tue, Nov 10, 2009 at 10:33 am

    If you only have time to visit one new Web site this week, make it the new Google dashboard.
    Last week, the search engine behemoth announced the new feature, which
    helps Web users keep track of all the ways Google keeps track of them.

    Visiting this single page gives Googlers centralized access to privacy settings on all the various Google applications — Gmail, Calendar, Google Docs, YouTube, etc. That’s important, because you might not realize that you
    opened a YouTube account four years ago and divulged your age or
    zip code — and that now that information could be available to all
    other Google products, or even to other Google users.

    scale and level of detail of the Dashboard is unprecedented, and we’re
    delighted to be the first Internet company to offer this — and we hope
    it will become the standard," Google wrote in its announcement.

    You might think you already have a good grasp on what information Google has collected about you.  But
    given Google’s dominance in search, and its ever-expanding reach into
    Web services, it’s stunning to see all that information in one place.  Click, and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised.

    Ponemon, who runs privacy research firm The Ponemon Institute, said he
    thought Google Dashboard was a solid step forward for Web privacy

    pretty impressed with it," he said. "It’s always interesting to see
    what a company knows about you. … It does create more transparency
    for users."

    the search giant continues to push into more and more Internet fields,
    Google’s privacy policies have increasingly been the target of
    government scrutiny, both here and abroad. Last year, the European Data
    Protection Working Party — part of the European Commission — published an opinion that search engines like Google should not store consumer information for more than six months.

    Limited access

    are some severe limitations to Google’s Dashboard, however. Most
    important: it doesn’t provide any new access to Google’s data mines.  Dashboard
    simply provides a single Web page that pulls all its services under one
    umbrella and makes it easier to find privacy settings and stored
    information. That’s a good thing, but it does not provide new insights
    or new protections for Google users who were already careful with their

    The tool is also limited to information gathered on users when logged in to Google.  It
    doesn’t give consumers access to information that might be tied to
    individual consumers in other ways — such as searches associated with
    individual computer IP address or cookies. That means it falls short of
    being a true privacy tool, according to privacy rights advocacy group
    Consumer Watchdog.

    dashboard gives the appearance of control without the actual ability to
    prevent Google from tracking you and delivering you to its marketers,”
    said John M. Simpson, a spokesman for the nonprofit organization. "It
    doesn’t reveal anything about what is at the heart of what I call
    Google’s ‘black box’ — what is associated with your computer’s IP

    addresses this concern on a page titled “Is this everything?” linked from the Dashboard. There, the firm explains that cookies and IP
    address tracking are intentionally kept separate from Google login
    accounts, so the information is not displayed on the Dashboard.

    anonymize this … data by removing part of the IP address (after 9
    months) and cookie information (after 18 months),” the firm says.

    But Simpson said failure to include that information on the Dashboard tool severely limits its usefulness.

    “A true privacy control would enable you to delete all that information and opt out,” he said.

    also criticized Google for not including another new privacy setting on
    the dashboard page — Google’s "Ad Preferences" tool.

    tracks users, places them into categories based on interests (such as
    ‘current events’ or ‘science’) and serves up targeted advertisements
    near search results based on those categories. The firm now makes the
    list of categories available to each user on its Web site, and it’s another page all Web users should visit.

    Users can add or remove categories, or they can opt out of the system entirely.

    "They have been citing that as another privacy initiative, so why isn’t that part of the Dashboard?" Simpson asked.

    not easy to find Dashboard on Google’s home page. Users must glance
    atop the page and click on settings, then Google Account Settings, and
    then "View data stored with this account." Direct links to also work.

    even Simpson concludes that Google’s dashboard makes the firms privacy
    efforts "better than any of the other online providers."

    Most are complacent

    It’s unclear how many users will find Google Dashboard useful, or will spend time tweaking their privacy settings.

    the privacy researcher, said studies consistently show that while 70
    percent of Americans say they care deeply about privacy issues (the
    other 30 percent are considered "privacy complacent") only 8 percent of the population cares enough to actually change their behavior out of
    privacy concerns.   So while most people say they
    are uncomfortable that a supermarket has their home phone number, only
    8 percent decline to sign up for a loyalty card — or take some other
    step, such as lying on an application — out of privacy concerns.

    tools like Google Dashboard might help change that — or at least get
    more people talking and thinking about privacy issues, Ponemon said.  He
    thinks every Web user should visit the Google Dashboard and click
    around, just to get a broad sense of the information that’s been
    collected by the firm.

    "It’s pretty helpful for people to see it," he said. "People really might be surprised that Google has this much information."

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