Google Dashboard: An Overview

Google’s new service is designed to help those concerned about their privacy online to track what the search engine knows about them. It’s good to have a central place from which to use its services, but it’s making a lot of people nervous. Keep reading to find out why.

Google’s new Dashboard service was released as recently as November, 2009 and is already making quite a few people uncomfortable. Though it seems as if the company has perfected the art of making people uncomfortable; this is illustrated by their recent dealings with the FCC over their Google Voice service, their awkward situation with the newspaper industry as a result of their Fast Flip service, and the fact that they keep churning out free services that crush long-standing names in business, like their free GPS service that has knocked well-known names like Garmin and Tom-Tom down a peg or two.

Google Dashboard is an entirely different animal, however, and it’s making some users wary of just how much their online behaviors are being tracked, indexed, and stored by the corporation.

How it Works

According to Google, the benefit of having a “central dashboard” is that it gives users insight into the amount of data Google collects about them, while also enabling them to have a central access point to all of the Google services they use.

Since Google Dashboard was released, many avid Internet users are finding that they’ve been using online services for months, if not years, without knowing they were Google services. Because of that, Dashboard is capable of shedding a great deal of light on a person’s Internet activity and making them aware of the types of services they utilize while online.

If you want to view your Dashboard, simply go to Google.com and click the down-arrow that’s located next to the link for your “settings.” From there, you should select "Google account settings,” which will immediately take you to Google Dashboard.

You have to log in to your Google account to access your Dashboard, which simply requires logging in to your Gmail account. Once you’ve signed in, you should notice that each Google service you’ve ever used (and surely there will be some you didn’t even know you’ve used) is clearly listed, along with information pertaining to your last login, any recent items or actions, and various links that lead to Google Dashboard’s privacy policy.

At this point, you can change your settings or customize your account if you so choose. Most likely, though, you’ll want to get straight to the good stuff and check out what kinds of information Google has stored concerning your Google-related Internet activity.

Most users will be relieved to find that Google’s Dashboard service isn’t incredibly complicated or difficult to navigate. It’s actually very simple and straightforward and in this case, that isn’t a bad thing. To view your stored information, all you have to do is scroll through a list of Google services you’ve used and that the Dashboard supports.

If you like to use Google services such as AdSense, Analytics, Notebook, or App Engine, you’ll notice that these particular services and others like them are shown at the bottom of your Dashboard, but can’t be accessed. That’s because Dashboard doesn’t support these services yet, but according to Google users will be able to access these in their Dashboard soon.

Obviously, Google Dashboard enables users to gain access to the company’s most often-used services, like their search history, Gmail account, YouTube, GTalk, Google Reader, and Google Docs. These items are all supported by Dashboard and as you scroll through all of them, Dashboard displays all of your account settings for each service and any recent activity. For example, your Dashboard will show any upcoming appointments on your Google Calendar, any recent messages in your Gmail inbox, recently shared or viewed documents from Google Docs, and your status in Gchat, among other updates.

No doubt, this is where it gets creepy for some users–and for good reason. We’ve all heard or read stories about how our Internet activity is being expertly tracked and how it can be accessed at any time by the appropriate parties. Apparently, Google has decided to do away with the often secretive nature of this kind of information, despite it being our information.

With little fanfare, the company has managed to make more than a few users uncomfortable. After all, it seems completely bizarre to essentially have a service you’re using know more about your Internet activity than you do.

Chances are, many first-time users will discover a wide array of information they weren’t aware of or simply forgot existed. For example, someone who uses Google Reader often may be surprised to find that many have subscribed to their feeds or want to share their feeds with them. Others may re-discover long-forgotten or long-neglected accounts with Orkut or other Google services that are still quite active, despite not receiving daily or even monthly attention.

Even more eye-opening is the fact that Google Dashboard is capable of pulling in data concerning recent Web searches, meaning you can see exactly when and what you’ve recently searched for. Some users Dashboards may go back two years, revealing Google searches for any number of long-forgotten things. You may not recall spending minutes online searching random topics like red teddy bears, bento boxes, and Disneyland lollipops, but your Google Dashboard not only remembers these searches, but has records of them as well–whether you like it or not.

Once users have become accustomed to using the Dashboard service, they may notice that a majority of the Google services they utilize have icons of people next to them. These icons are meant to indicate that any of the profile information pertaining to that account is public or that some of the data pertaining to that specific service is somehow shared with other users of that service.

It may come as a shock to some users that some of their profile information is public, but these icons are very useful. Essentially, it is Google’s way of allowing users to quickly access the information that’s stored about them, while also making them aware that some of their information is public and available for other users to see. If Google Dashboard users want more information about what is public, or if they simply want to customize their profile information based on each of their services, they can click on their various accounts, which will take them directly to that particular Google service and allow them to update any account information.

Google Dashboard also provides users with a convenient way to manage their account for each service they use. Links are located next to each service, meaning that if a user wanted to manage their YouTube account, a direct link to their account management page will be located in their Google Dashboard. Using that link will enable users to manage their privacy settings or sharing options on the video site.

Also, if a user is uncomfortable with the presence of their Google search history, they can remove specific items or clear the entire history using their Google Dashboard. Where these erased searches or cleared histories go is another matter entirely. If Google keeps track of every move a user makes, how do users know this information doesn’t remain in existence somewhere? So far, there’s no information that can answer that question.

Every service that’s listed in a person’s Dashboard also includes a link to that service’s privacy policies. This is especially helpful to curious users, because these links will lead to information that not only reveals but helps them understand what kinds of information is kept and why it’s kept in the first place.

Any settings that make a user uncomfortable can be modified directly from their Dashboard. Thankfully, there’s also an option for users who are entirely uncomfortable with any of their information being public or accessible. Their Google Dashboard will provide a link to the “Data Liberation Front,” which will help them figure out how to expunge their data from Google entirely.

According to Google, they decided to launch Dashboard in order to provide insight — or “transparency”– to users about how they collect our information. There’s no way around it, though; many users will be uneasy with the amount of information Google keeps.

Even though the company offers links and information through Dashboard that enables users to modify anything they find objectionable, it’s still a mystery as to why Google keeps the kind of seemingly useless and trivial information it does. It’s obvious that this is Google’s attempt to ease the minds of Internet users concerning the increasing amount of data the company stores, but it also brings up new questions and in many cases, it will make users even more uneasy.

Why is so much of this information kept? Is it sold? Is it used for marketing purposes? Is it easy for others to access? Can the government use it? Is it a violation of our rights? These are all questions that are being asked as a result of the launching of Google Dashboard and so far, very few answers have been provided.

If nothing else, this service provides an interesting glimpse into our Internet use. For some, the information may make them wary of using the Internet or utilizing Google Services, but it seems as if there’s no escaping this type of information hoarding. Yahoo and other search engines save similar data, so it’s simply another thing we have to get used to in the digital age.

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