Google’s Dashboard Approach to Privacy

If you use Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, or any of the ever-growing array of Google services, you may have cringed at the trove of personal data the company has gathered. To allay concerns, Google launched Dashboard, a single page housing privacy controls and settings for most of its services.

The Dashboard page, accessible at google.com/dashboard, gives you an overview of calendars or documents you share, your chat history, and sites you've authorized to access your Picasa pictures or Gmail contacts (such as a social networking site that can use your contact list to help you find other users, à la Facebook). You'll also find a list of search queries you've performed while logged in to Google. If you use the Google Toolbar and have enabled the Web history feature, you'll see your browsing history, too.

A Clean Search Slate

If seeing so much personal information stored on Google servers makes you un­­easy, you can clear it or stop sharing it. Click Remove items or clear Web history, and remove some or all search terms. If you wipe your search slate clean, Google will assume that you want to opt out of saving such data, and it will automatically stop doing so. You can tell Gmail to stop saving your chat history, and decide whether YouTube can use your Google account info to target ads.

Google hasn't created any new privacy features or options for Dashboard; it has just made them easier to find. And faster, effortless control over our personal data is clearly a good thing. "It's definitely progress," says Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a consumer and privacy advocacy group.

But Dashboard is no privacy panacea. For one thing, it allows access to saved data tied to a Google account, but not to information (such as saved searches) tied to the unique identifier within a cookie. Google that says doing so would raise additional privacy concerns, because while logging in to a Google account verifies a person's identity, you have no such login option for a cookie. And allowing anyone sitting at a PC to see all of the searches tied to a cookie currently on that PC could reveal plenty of sensitive information.

It's a valid concern, but both Schwartz and Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, say that if the cookie-associated data is that sensitive, perhaps Google shouldn't be collecting it at all. That consideration, along with Dashboard's clear nudge to sign up for a Google account, leads Rotenberg to conclude that the new step is just "privacy theater," primarily for show, and isn't a real step toward securing users' sensitive information.

Security Starts at Home

Google and other online companies could do more to protect account holders' personal data. But the new Dashboard's promise of fast and easy access to settings and controls is a step forward.

Paradoxically, though, Dashboard can bust your privacy: If bad guys guess or steal your Google account information, they will have the same access to your Dashboard data that you have. So be sure to keep your Google password safe.

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