Google Dashboard Lights Up User Access to Privacy Controls

Google on Thursday announced the launch of Google Dashboard, an online utility that offers one view into all Google products a customer uses.

This is intended to give users more transparency and control over their data, the Internet search giant claimed.

What Google Dashboard Is

Dashboard is really an information aggregator. After a user logs into his or her Google account, he or she can access Dashboard to see a summary of data for each Google product he or she uses — Gmail activity, YouTube activity, Docs activity, etc. Dashboard also provides direct links to privacy and control settings.

“The Dashboard scans the different products and services associated with your Google account for a summary of the user data they store,” Google spokesperson Brian Richardson explained. “Each service then separately creates the summary section and sends it back to the Dashboard. The Dashboard does not access the raw data of the services, it does not correlate any cross services data and it does not collect or store any additional user data.”

The Google Dashboard covers more than 20 products and services, including Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Web history, Orkut, YouTube, Picasa, Talk, Reader, Alerts and Latitude.

Transparency and Control?

When users refresh or close the Dashboard page, all the data stored is removed from the Dashboard, Richardson told TechNewsWorld. The point of the product is to provide transparency and control, Richardson pointed out. “The transparency is showing users information associated with their account clearly and in one place so they can see and know the data they are storing”, he said.

The control comes with the direct links to users’ personal privacy and security settings “Users do have control over the data they share with us, and the Dashboard is one more way — like the Data Liberation Front — in which we are working to help give users more, easier ways to both see and control that information,” Richardson said.

For example, users can choose not to save their chat history. “If a user sets his or her chat default to ‘off the record,’ there is no chat content retained anywhere, including in your Gmail account,” Richardson explained.

Gmail messages will be removed from a user’s account view immediately after they are deleted, Richardson said. However, residual copies of deleted messages and accounts may remain on Google’s active servers for up to 60 days and may continue to remain in its backup servers.

Gotta Play With That Data

The transparency and control Dashboard claims to offer are more sizzle than steak, said Laura DiDio, principal at ITIC. “Dashboard’s not straightforward, it’s not simple and it’s certainly not transparent,” she told TechNewsWorld.

“We understand that if you use a Google site and do searches that Google will index and keep a record of certain things, but it’s not clear how your stuff is kept secure,” DiDio pointed out. “If you do a search for a mortgage, for instance, it provides your personal information to Intellireal, which is another site.”

Google Dashboard only lets users know what data Google products store about them. These products store data so Google can offer personalized search and provide value-added services. “Gmail would not be very useful if we did not store your emails,” the Internet giant points out in its Web page for frequently asked questions about Dashboard.

Privacy? What Privacy?

In announcing Dashboard, Google made an oblique reference to its Privacy Center. It also says on the Dashboard FAQ page that data not associated with a user’s Google account is kept separate from that account and is not visible on the Dashboard. This is to protect users’ privacy.

It’s difficult to understand how preventing users from viewing their own data that is not associated with their Google account protects their privacy, but Google’s Richardson was willing to give it a try.

“Dashboard does help address privacy concerns for users,” he said. “We met with a few privacy and consumer advocate groups before the launch to get their feedback.”

However, the privacy links in Google Dashboard lead users through a bewildering maze, said DiDio. “The average person who looks at this privacy policy will find it hard to discern where the privacy improvements are on the Dashboard,” ITIC’s DiDio said. “This takes you over the woods and through the hills to Grandma’s house.”

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