Google Dashboard Provides Too Much Info And Yet Not Enough

Sat, Nov 7, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    With Google Dashboard, Google again finds itself in a no-win situation. In a utopian world, the search engine would be roundly praised for providing a window it’s the data users generate from using Google applications.

    Yet whenever Google puts a foot forward, advertising its action using keywords like "transparency," "openness," and "privacy," the company opens itself to a hailstorm of criticism. And that’s what has happened here, with some claiming Google collects too much data in Dashboard and others saying it doesn’t provide enough.

    Dashboard summarizes data from the Web services associated with a user’s Google Account. Dashboard, which can be found here, or under the Personal Setting section under My Account, will list how many Gmail conversations we have going, how many Google Docs we have, Google Calendar appointments, and even Web history if we’ve enabled it.

    This does not include information Google collects on us from its server logs, cookies and ads — and this is key; more on this later in the report.

    Some bloggers complained that this is too much data put on one palette, made easily accessible to users or even legal eagles. GigaOm’s Stacy Higginbotham noted:

      I’m not particularly ashamed by any of my information, but others may not want their digital footprints so easily accessed. It used to take a search warrant and your hard drive, or even a subpoena to an ISP, to get access to damning computer data (unless you bring it in for repairs). Now all it takes is an unguarded laptop and Google Dashboard.

    However, it’s not as easy or accessible as some think. You need to be logged into your Google Account to access Dashboard, but when you click the Dashboard link from your account page, Google takes you to a second sign in page where it will ask you to enter your password again to ensure extra protection.

    This is a nice gesture, but if someone knows your password, you’re in a bind and that user will access your data. Perhaps Google can add a security question for the third step, but of course that would be walking the fine line between security and simplicity.

    Lance Ulanoff of PC Magazine opined about the legal ramifications of Dashboard:

      I could envision a scenario in which a prosecutor subpoenas Google for this information. Anyone’s search history could indicate certain predilections. But Google’s vast store of people knowledge goes way beyond search.

      It has so many services and such a huge user base that it’s safe to say that Google may know more about you than virtually any other online service provider (to be fair, if Microsoft or Yahoo had a similar service, we might see some of the same detail). Google knows what people searched for, their shopping habits, who they talked to (Google Voice), where they are (Latitude)¿and the list goes on and on. Dashboard takes all this disparate information and weaves it into a sort of living diary.

    But this ignores a crucial point. Dashboard or not, lawyers can still get at the data if they really wanted to. Dashboard does not collect any new or unique data — it all existed somewhere on Google’s servers. It’s just a snap to find it now because it’s aggregated.

    Then there is the camp that doesn’t think Google put all the data it could have put on the Dashboard. LA Times’ David Sarno wrote:

      And though much of the concern about Google’s use of data revolves around precisely how and what the company does to analyze and profit from user information, the Dashboard offers little insight into those domains. It does not specify which services retain user data, or for how long. Neither does it make clear to users that, for instance, their Web search histories and e-mails are constantly scanned for the purposes of selling products to them and others.

    The data Sarno referred to includes info Google collects on us from its server logs, which includes Web request, IP address, browser type, browser language and the date and time of the request. Dashboard also doesn’t include our cookie info, or digital preferences, or interest-based ads that Google puts in front of us based on our search queries. These are also known as behavioral ads.

    Google said this data is intentionally kept separate from our Google Account and thus is not visible on Dashboard to protect our privacy.

    But some seem to think that if Google is going to offer a Dashboard, it should go all in. That instead of just aggregating innocuous Google Apps data, Google should also serve up the server log data, cookie info and behavioral ad info.

    Indeed, privacy advocates, such as John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, argued Google’s gesture with Dashboard was just a straw man and that if the company really wanted to help it would allow users to prevent search information from being logged or to prevent Google from tracking a user’s online activity while surfing the Web. Simpson said:

      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. Google isn’t truly protecting privacy until it lets you control that information.

    What camp are you in? Does Dashboard serve up too much info from one spot, or too little?

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