Google Dashboard Gives You a Degree of Control

What does Google know about you and when did they know it? Those are the questions Google claims it's trying to answer with the new Google Dashboard unveiled yesterday.

Google Dashboard: A Triumph of Transparency, Not Privacy
Simply put, the Dashboard gathers up almost every Google service you've signed up for and displays the most basic settings for each on a single page. Here's how The Official Google Blog describes 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."

[ Even the Great Googley Moogley stumbles from time to time, as Cringley notes in "Gmail Gfails, Internet survives again" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Sounds peachy, doesn't it? Finally Google is giving us what we want, control over own data. Saints be praised.

Well, not exactly.

Let's start with the privacy angle. Google puts a "people" icon next to account information that's available to anyone Googling -- er, searching the Net. That's useful info. But if you want to make that stuff private -- or just find out if it's even possible to make it private -- you have to go deep into the settings of each Google app. If you don't already know where to go to change this setting, you may not get there.

For example, I have seven Google Calendars (yes, I am freakish in that way). Google's Dashboard told me one of them was public, but didn't identify which one. A public calendar can reveal scads of sensitive info -- like the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of people you're meeting with, or when you'll be out of town for an extended period. It's one-stop shopping for identity thieves and/or your local cat burglar.

I had to go through my calendar settings one by one until I identified the culprit (which, fortunately, was one I never use for personal info). Had Google really wanted to enhance "transparency, choice, and control" they would have made this a one-click operation.

Similarly, for people who were appalled to discover just how deeply Google was embedded in their lives -- quite a few of them, judging from the blog chatter -- there's no easy way to simply unsubscribe from these services. I have an Orkut profile I set up once for research purposes and never used again. How do I get rid of it? I still can't figure that one out.

Or, once I finally do figure out how to kill one of my Google accounts, what happens to the information associated with it? Does Google keep it? And if so, for how long?

Then there's all the info Google isn't sharing on the Dashboard. As AllThingsD's John Paczkowski notes:

Noticeably absent from Dashboard is any view of the cookie data Google uses to target ads. Essentially, all Dashboard does is consolidate the admin pages of the services associated with a user’s account in a single place. Convenient, yes. But does it tell us anything we didn’t already know? Or, more importantly, how Google is using that information? No.

The day Google tells me how it's using my information to make money -- and gives me the opportunity to say thanks but no thanks -- is the day I believe Google is really interested in "transparency, choice, and control."

Meanwhile, as PC World's Tony Bradley notes, gathering all this info in one tidy spot makes it easier for anyone who's hacked your Google account to dip his slimy fingers into the corners of your life like a biscotti into a venti latte.

And then there's the possibility of Google screwing up and sharing this info with the wrong people, as it did earlier this year with Google Docs. Following that breach, the Electronic Privacy Information Center called upon the FTC to investigate the security of Google services that collect data (which is to say, pretty much all of them).

Is Google Dashboard a step in the right direction? Sure. But that's all it is. If anything, its greatest value is in demonstrating just how dependent many of us have become on our G-benefactors.

The day Google decides to go all in with Satan and use its powers for evil, we're screwed. Even if the company remains well intentioned, it also has to be extremely competent.

So the big issue still remains: Can we really trust these guys?

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