Google Dashboard and online privacy

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The Russian comic Yakov Smirnoff famously said, "In Soviet Russia, TV watches you." Today, he might say, "on Internet, Google watches you."

Indeed, Google is like Santa Claus: it sees you when you're sleeping. It knows when you're awake. It knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake.

But you don't have to be bad in order to want to protect your privacy. Plenty of good people mistrust Google. An entire culture has grown up around being skeptical of Google's informal motto, "Don't be evil." To catch a glimpse of that culture, check out the paranoia - and hilarious cartoons - at Google Watch.

This context is helpful in understanding Google's latest privacy product, Google Dashboard.

Here's what Google says about it:

In an effort to provide you with greater transparency and control over their own data, we've built the Google Dashboard. Designed to be simple and useful, the Dashboard summarizes data for each product that you use (when signed in to your account) and provides you direct links to control your personal settings.


The Dashboard covers more than 20 Google products, including Reader, Gmail, web history, YouTube and Blogger. Over time, Google will add other products, such as Analytics, that are not yet included.

But a close look shows no new features, no new control for the end user. Dashboard just puts all of Google's existing privacy settings in one place. A convenience, yes, but not a breakthrough.

What could Google have done? Plenty, according to critics:

According to John Simpson at Consumer Watchdog:

If Google really wanted to give users control over their privacy it would give consumers the ability to be anonymous from the company and its advertisers in crucial areas such as search data and online behavior," said John M. Simpson, consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog. "The Dashboard gives the appearance of control without the actual ability to prevent Google from tracking you and delivering you to its marketers.

"What the Dashboard does is list all the information linked directly to your name, but what it doesn't do is let you know and control the data directly tied to your computer's IP address, which is Google's black box and data mine," said Simpson "Google isn't truly protecting privacy until it lets you control that information."


And here's David Sarno, information technology reporter at the LA Times:

... and though much of the concern about Google's data storage revolves around precisely how and what the company does to analyze and profit from user information, the Dashboard offers little insight into those domains. It does not specify which services keep user data, or for how long. Neither does it alert users that, for instance, their Web search histories and e-mails are constantly scanned for the purposes of selling products to them and others.


While you're waiting for a more open approach to privacy, there are some easy things you can do:

  • Don't rely exclusively on Google products. Today, you often have a choice; you can use WordPress instead of Blogger, for example. A healthy diet includes a variety of foods; use this pluralistic approach when choosing internet services;
  • Log out of your Google account when you're not using Google services;
  • Reset your browser occasionally; this wipes cookies and browsing history. Or use "private browsing" settings.

You can further manage your privacy, but it will require some effort. Here are two articles that provide specific tips.

6 ways to protect your privacy on Google, by Robert L. Mitchell, Computerworld

Online Privacy: How to Hide Your Google Search Trails: Eight steps for keeping your search-engine data private, by Amit Agarwal

Or, you could just move to a "remote mountaintop village," as suggested in this Onion satire:

Google Opt Out Feature Lets Users Protect Privacy By Moving To Remote Village

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This page contains a single entry by David Kamerer published on November 8, 2009 6:40 PM.

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