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Google Gives Users a Gander at the Trails They Leave

Google Gives Users a Gander at the Trails They Leave

Account Activity, Google's latest service, lets users look at the activity records the company has kept regarding their account usage. Activities under services like Gmail, Google+ and YouTube can be accessed. Google's rollout of features that give users more knowledge about the data being collected on them coincides with calls for transparency by parts of the U.S. federal government.

By Rachelle Dragani
03/29/12 11:10 AM PT

Google has launched a new tool called "Account Activity," designed to give users a detailed glimpse into their Web usage across all Google sites and services.

Account Activity is a personalized, detailed monthly report on Web activity with Google search, Gmail accounts, YouTube and social network Google+. It also indicates location and device information, so a user could see he or she searched from an iPad in a hotel in Italy, for example. Users can also monitor how many Gmail messages they send and receive on a month-to-month basis. The report also shows total Web searches and the top queries.

The tracker can also be a way to better monitor account safety. For instance, if a user notices that his or her account has been accessed from an iPad the user doesn't own, he or she would know to change a password or otherwise up security measures. Google also offers a two-step verification system for which users can register.

The service is available via an opt-in option and is protected by a password. Deleting an item in a browser's history won't have an impact on the report, but Google said that the reports can be deleted at any time.

"We wanted to make it easier for signed-in users to understand, manage and protect their information on Google," a Google spokesperson told TechNewsWorld in a statement provided by Nadja Blagojevic, communications for Google.

The company likened it to tools such as Google Dashboard and the Ads Preferences Manager.

Upping Transparency

Google's rollout of features that give users more knowledge about the data being collected on them coincides with calls for transparency by parts of the U.S. federal government. The FTC issued a report earlier this week calling for greater online transparency, about a month after the White House put forth a similar plea.

"The account activity tracker is part of Google's larger effort to create a single place where its users can see what's happening with their Google accounts," Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence, told TechNewsWorld.

Google itself recently changed its privacy policy, to some criticism. The company now employs a single privacy policy across almost all of its services and features, including Gmail, YouTube, Docs, Calendar, Google+ and others. The company said it was done in order to treat each user as a single entity across all its platforms, which would help make each Google experience more personalized.

Google argued that with this information, a vegetarian in San Francisco would see nearby vegetarian restaurants pop up in a search query rather than hamburger joints in Los Angeles, for instance, thereby offering faster and more effective search results.

Critics said Google's decision was invasive to users' privacy. Giving users more access to the data that Google collects, then, could help quell some of those complaints, said Sterling.

"This has been a Google initiative for some time, but it now serves another purpose as kind of a PR effort, too," said Sterling. "Google is being criticized globally for its privacy policy changes and some of its other moves that are seen as hostile to consumer privacy."

Not the Next Big Thing

How much of a peace offering Account Activity really amounts to will be up to the users, said Sterling. Some heavy Internet users may be curious about their online activities and monitor them extensively, using external trackers and keeping an eye on their Klout Score, a measure of a user's influence across their individual networks, including social media and blogs.

Those users, though, are few and far between, and since the service requires an opt-in, the majority probably won't take that extra step to see what they've been up to online, said Sterling.

"It's a power user tool and most people will not be regularly checking or utilizing it," said Sterling. "Ordinary users might do it once or twice out of curiosity, but that's about it."

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