Nov. 10, 2009 at 9:00 AM ET
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.
"The 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.
Larry Ponemon, who runs privacy research firm The Ponemon Institute, said he thought Google Dashboard was a solid step forward for Web privacy rights.
"I'm 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."
As 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.
There 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 settings.
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.
"The 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 address."
Google 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.
"We 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.
Simpson also criticized Google for not including another new privacy setting on the dashboard page -- Google's "Ad Preferences" tool.
Google 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.
It's 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 google.com/dashboard also work.
Still, 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.
Ponemon, 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.
Still, 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."