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Google Offers Users A Peek At Stored Data

By BITS - NYTIMES TECH BLOG

Thu, Nov 5, 2009 at 1:30 pm

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Google, which has been criticized frequently for amassing large amounts of data about people, is giving users an easy way to find out what information it stores in their accounts.

At a European privacy conference on Thursday in Spain, the company unveiled a new service called Google Dashboard that summarizes the data that Google collects in users’ accounts for products like Gmail, Picasa Web Albums, Web History, Checkout, Reader and YouTube. Users will be able to adjust their privacy settings for the various Google products directly from the dashboard.

Much of the information was previously available in the accounts and settings sections for each product, so Dashboard simply brings all that information together in one place.

“For the most part, the data was accessible to you in a piecemeal fashion,” Shuman Ghosemajumder, business product manager for trust and safety, said in an interview Wednesday. “This is about providing you with a one-stop shop to see all of the data about you in various products.”

Mr. Ghosemajumder said Dashboard would offer users more transparency and control. The dashboard for Gmail, for example, will list the number of conversations in your inbox and the total number of conversations in your account, as well as how many chat sessions it has stored. Links for changing settings will be easily accessible.

Dahsboard provides information only about users’ Google accounts for products that require them to log in or for products in which the log-in is optional. It does not address the search records of people who are not logged into Google or the cookie data that Google uses to aim ads at people. Many advocates say the collection and storage of such data may raise the biggest privacy concerns. They also say that while such data, which typically includes a computer’s Internet Protocol, or IP, address, is not associated with personally identifiable information like names and addresses, it can often be linked with individuals.

Dashboard also does not change any of Google’s policies with regards to the retention of use of data.

Still, some privacy advocates hailed the product.

“It is a significant step forward in terms of trying to unite the user experience for people who use Google products,” said Ari Schwartz, chief operating officer of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an independent advocacy group that receives some funding from Google and other technology companies. “We still need a lot more to protect consumers’ privacy.”

Mr. Schwartz said Google’s move mirrored efforts by Facebook to offer users more transparency about privacy settings. He said he hoped that more Internet companies would offer products like Dashboard.

Others were more critical.

“Dashboard requires a Google account,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Google is trying to move Internet users to the single sign-on model.” Mr. Rotenberg noted that the Federal Trade Commission had opposed a similar effort by Microsoft in 2002 after consumer groups said it would raise privacy and security risks.

John Simpson, of Consumer Watchdog, a frequent critic of Google, said Dashboard gave users the appearance of control over privacy but did not really prevent Google from tracking users across the Web.

“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, Mr. Simpson said in a press release. “Google isn’t truly protecting privacy until it lets you control that information.”

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