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Poking at Google's new privacy Dashboard

Google this week unveiled a new feature called Dashboard, intended to give users a way to view -- and in modest ways limit -- the breadth of information the search giant collects about our online lives.

To check out Dashboard, browse to this link, and sign in to your Google account. From there, you can manage which Google Documents you're sharing, edit your Gchat history, or clear out items from your Web search history, among other tasks.

dash.JPG

Google said it was launching the service "to provide users with greater transparency and control over their own data." The reaction from privacy experts has been mixed. Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer at the Center for Democracy & Technology, called the Dashboard offering a good first step, and one that is several steps ahead of what Google's peers in the search businesses currently offer their users.

"Google has said that they want to give the user control, but this is the first time that we've really seen them organize that control over privacy sensitive information," Schwartz said.

But as others have observed, Dashboard doesn't really give users any clearer insights into what the company is doing with all of the data it collects. John Simpson, a consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog, said if Google really wants people to use Dashboard, the company should make it easier to find, noting that there are few links to the tool from the landing pages of any Google properties. Simpson said Google also should make it easier for users to blow away stored search and activity data across multiple Google properties with a single click.

"Google is maximizing the PR value of this feature in response to critics who have demanded online privacy guarantees," Simpson said in a written statement. "They are letting a little light shine into the black box that is Google, but to claim that this is transparency is absurd."

googlehist.JPG

Whether or not Dashboard's insights go deep enough, the view it offers into how much Web and/or search history information Google stores about users can be startling (the above screen shot shows some of my search history dating back to mid-2007). Interestingly, I found it easier to find Web search history by *not* using the Dashboard. To see what I mean go to Google.com (while signed in), click "Settings," then select "Google Account Settings," then click the "Web history" link. You should now be able to scroll back through your search history.

Now go back to the main personal settings page and click the link next to Dashboard that says "View data stored with this account." You have to then scroll down to the "Web history" section, and click the "Web" link to view the same information through the Dashboard.

By Brian Krebs  |  November 6, 2009; 1:40 PM ET
Categories:  From the Bunker , Safety Tips  | Tags: dashboard, google, privacy  
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Comments

Web history is a choice. You can disable it, which I did a long time ago. That's some plowed ground that doesn't need re-visiting....

Posted by: JkR- | November 6, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

First, I think that Google has made this pretty accessible at Google.com/dashboard. The thing is, most users don't care about the amount of data Google has on them.

For the ones that do, this isn't nearly enough. Sure, this is a great summary of the stuff users voluntarily give Google, but doesn't give even a peek into what Google actually knows about a user - matching search history and user log-in status to IP; trending, demographic data used to match adwords, etc.

Posted by: skyman375 | November 6, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

AFAIK I don't have a Google account. They are like a little kid in a candy store when it comes to raw data.

Not a big deal, every needle deserves a big impressive haystack, but not the other way around however.

Posted by: gannon_dick | November 6, 2009 10:45 PM | Report abuse

At a minimum Dashboard will tell you all the Google apps where you have ventured.

Some, like Calendar, I started way back but will not use again. Can a user somehow delete registration in a given Google application?

Posted by: Bartolo1 | November 7, 2009 8:06 AM | Report abuse

Also, it looks like you cannot "expand web history" without downloading the Google Tool Bar, something some may not wish to do.

I found this section of Google to be a maze, with many nooks and crannies!

Posted by: Bartolo1 | November 7, 2009 8:22 AM | Report abuse

This doesn't tell you about all your info google has tracked and sold indirectly to advertisers. It's nothing but a smokescreen. Even on the dashboard there are very few screens dedicated to "privacy settings." I rate this whole thing as a big FAIL. Or worse a LIE (so google can pretend to address privacy concerns).

What I'd like to do is make it so that when I do a search, I am not immediately stalked by ads related to my search. How bout that google???

Posted by: hmmmw | November 7, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

I read this type of thing everywhere:
"Did you know that any website you visit can determine your browsing history?"
But I can't get a clear explanation. If I have cleared my history, and then open three tabs in three different websites, can each site obtain information about which sites are open at that time? What about a separate window? If so, how do I stop that information from being sent?

Posted by: Jumper1 | November 7, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

@Jumper1
Here's a simple explanation of history stealing:

When you view a link that you've been to before, your browser displays that link in a different color. (this can be controlled with the CSS pseudo-class ":visited") For example, if you search for something on Google, search result links that you haven't been to will be blue, links you have visited will be purple.

JavaScript can be used to determine the computed style of a link.

If a web page contains thousands of links, hidden with CSS, and uses JavaScript to determine the color of each link, the owner of that web page can tell where you've been.

This technique was originally discovered by Jerimiah Grossman
http://jeremiahgrossman.blogspot.com/2006/08/i-know-where-youve-been.html

There is also a newer Technique that doesn't rely on JavaScript:
http://ha.ckers.org/weird/CSS-history.cgi

As far as protecting yourself goes, using the Firefox plugin NoScript will protect you from JavaScript based history stealing (given that you don't allow JavaScript on a malicious site). Your best bet is to just clear your history as often as possible.

Posted by: a917177 | November 8, 2009 11:13 PM | Report abuse

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