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Protect your privacy on Google: Tips from Computerworld | Inside Google
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Protect your privacy on Google: Tips from Computerworld

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Tue, May 25, 2010 at 3:11 pm

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Protect your privacy on Google: Tips from Computerworld

A great “smart paranoid’s guide to using Google” at Computerworld today takes you step by step through “down-and-dirty details on how to maintain your privacy while using Google’s myriad services.” It’s chock full of precautions, security tips and instructions on how to disengage from Google collections of  information about you. The guide takes you from simple to complex, and you can choose the level of protection you prefer.

Top tip: “The simplest thing you can do to prevent the accumulation of search data is to make sure you’re logged out of your Google account before searching.”

While you’re there, be sure to read “What Google Knows About You” as well.

“It is the breathtaking scope of data under Google’s control, generated by an expanding list of products and services, that has put the company at the center of the online privacy debate. According to Pam Dixon, executive director at the World Privacy Forum, “No company has ever had this much consumer data” — an assertion that Google disputes.”

I’ve been using Google web search since 1998, when it showed me the most useful and relevant results, and had an exclamation mark, like Yahoo!

Twelve years and a couple of dozen products and services later, I have been trying to regain some of the privacy I’ve given up in return for the “free ride.”  My Gmail, Toolbar, Bookmarks, iGoogle home page, Groups, Docs, and Translation — all useful and innovative tools —  have captured the trails of my queries, communications, preferences and purchases in my online life, and those of my employers in various research jobs.

Although I should have known better (and did) about the breadth of personal information I have contributed to the Google’s databases, for me, the wake up call was “making ads more interesting.”   On March 11, 2010, Google announced that “ads will associate categories of interest — say sports, gardening, cars, pets — with your browser, based on the types of sites you visit and the pages you view.”

Like many people I know, I don’t often look at the advertisements. I know how to shop. But I avoided installing add-ons to deliberately block advertisements (like AdSweep), as a tip of the hat to Google for providing its services. But “interest-based” advertising  — or behavioral targeting – gave me the creeps.

As advised, I clicked through to Google’s Ad Preferences Manager and saw that I had automatically been signed up for several preference groups, like “Industries – Aerospace & Defense – Defense Industry,” according to sites I been visiting. These preferences, which I had not chosen, were saved on an advertising cookie in my browser.

Google gave me the option to edit or delete my preferences there, or to opt out of “interest based advertising, “ with the warning “You will see the same number of ads as before, but they may not be as relevant when you opt out.” Fine. My opinion: the ads are not relevant because I am not shopping. I am researching.  I am not looking for stuff. I am looking for information.

So opt me out. Step 1: Set a new “opt out” cookie.

But wait: if by any reason I delete the opt-out cookie, I would be opted in again.

Step 2: Google gave me the option of downloading a plug-in that will save the opt out preference permanently. Done.

But wait: that was just the opt out for the Firefox browser on my laptop.

Step 3: Do the same thing for Internet Explorer on my laptop.

Step 4: Do the same thing for Firefox on my desktop.

Step 5: Do the same thing for IE on my desktop. Done.

Next step? Web History i.e. “personalized search.”

Google: “We store information related to the pages you visit..”


This post was written by:

Margot Williams

- who has written 49 posts on Inside Google.

Margot Williams has more than two decades of experience in roles as investigative researcher, research editor, database editor, technology trainer and library director at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gannett newspapers and Time Warner. She was lead researcher on two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at The Washington Post for reporting on terrorism in 2002 and for an investigation of the use of deadly force by the District of Columbia police in 1999. Margot is the co-author of “Great Scouts! CyberGuides for Subject Searching on the Web” (Cyberage Books, 1999) and contributed to the “Networkings” column in The Washington Post for five years.

Contact the author

5 Responses to “Protect your privacy on Google: Tips from Computerworld”

  1. Ranjan Says:

    Hi there Margot,
    Great article.

    I particularly locked in when you wrote about interest based advertising. I have noticed only recently exactly how targeted the ads on webpages are to my interests and this isn’t just Google pages mind you!
    My response: creeped out.

    I have always been a sceptic when it comes to online privacy and especially with regards to Google. I resisted joining Facebook for a very long time but now I am onboard with that as well. I jumped onto Gmail in a big way when it first came out thinking it would not be a problem because it wouldn’t be my “main” email, which it now is. Again, my privacy concerns were momentarily forgotten while I am using what is otherwise an amazing service and something that is a very exciting part of our modern digital lives: social networking and search.

    My point in this email: that I am beginning to wake up, again. That I am creeped out for a reason (which I can’t yet articulate into words). That we’re all losing something, well, giving something up, that if we are able to see on the totality of things, we would probably not have chosen to do. That it *is* our choice.

    How am I going to proceed? With great difficulty.

    I am going to spend some time learning about how my personal information is spread and contained across all the data systems I use, especially the internet based services and then work out ways to dilute the concentration where I can. It’s going to be really really tough, especially with all my buddies on Facebook for example. A great service which really changes the way in which we keep in contact. But we must look at the costs.

    It’s important that people like yourself keep doing the thing you do and get this message out there. Keep up the great work!

  2. Kallisti Says:

    I have been using (for Firefox) an extension called NoScript to block all scripts originating from, among others, any google, google-analytics, googleapi etc. domain. In addition I also have the extension CookieMonster blocking third-party cookies from the same places, including doubleclick etc. Would this be sufficient or does installing software from Google on my computer really make me safer?

    If they are making millions of your data it’s not really free

  3. george collins Says:

    Alors! Orwell must be smiling.



  1. Join the “1 out of 15” opting out for privacy | Inside Google - 31. May, 2010

    [...] Website owners can use Google Analytics to track visitors on their sites and Google collects the data from all the visits for its own use. If individual surfers opt out the data will become less useful to the site owners and to Google. Note that opting out will not block information from being collected by sites you visit apart from the Google Analytics service. Also, it will not opt you out of the Double Click ad preferences cookie; see our previous blog post on how to do  that. [...]

  2.  | Inside Google - 22. Sep, 2010

    [...] What consumer even knows what an ad network is, let alone how to opt out of them? Worse, tools like Google’s Ad Preferences allow consumers to opt out of receiving targeted ads, but the company doesn’t stop tracking [...]

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