Now’s Your Chance To Spy On Google

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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."

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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