Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Google dashboard

Google has an ad in today's New York Times. Over a half page (and with lots of white space), it is a cartoon of a guy up to his waist in water calling a plumber. The plumber who answers says: "I'm on my way. See you in 15 hours." The rest of the text goes:

"You live in Peoria. Do you really need a plumber from New York? We didn't think so.... That's why search engines, including Google, give you results based on your city or region. They can do this by using your computer's IP address. It's a number like, which acts like a zip code to tell them the rough area your computer is in.

To find out more about how websites get to know you better go to google.com/goodtoknow"
The text vs. subtext in this ad is stunning. Although justifying a Google practice, it speaks of it in the third person: "they" use your IP address, it tells "them" the area your computer is in. The message is: everyone does it. It's not a Google thing, it's an Internet thing. Don't blame us.

The site at "goodtoknow" uses the same cartoon figures and has very little text; most information is given via videos. The site is a fairly good round-up of information topics, from phishing to securing your home wifi network. (The irony of that being that Google was caught picking up open wifi traffic in Germany.) I could imagine it as a "go-to" place for novices needing information on online privacy. Much of it isn't about Google at all: the video on "Stay safe online" gives five rules about passwords and avoiding phishing and never mentions Google. It also doesn't mention that when you log into a site with a secure password, everything you do is observable by the owner of the site. Believe it or not, many people do not understand that. They think that the password makes their activities private, even to the site owner.

The page on "Manage your information" includes a link to Google Dashboard, which was also mentioned in one of the videos, and which, if I'd known about I had forgotten. Google Dashboard is a list of some of the things that Google knows about you, in particular which Google services you have accounts on. It shows your settings on these services. I found some services I had played with and forgotten about, which I can now delete.

Of course, Dashboard is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Google knows about us. I turned off Web history in 2007 so I don't see my searches there. If you are at all concerned about privacy, visit Dashboard and make some adjustments. Google warns you that you will get results that are less customized for your interests. However, if you are reading this you probably are an information professional, and my guess is that you can find the ad for that printer just as well searching privately (if real privacy really exists) without also letting Google know your political, sexual and religious interests.

You often hear that people don't really care about their privacy and they are quite happy to give Web sites their information in exchange for services. I also observe that behavior, but I'm not convinced that the majority of Web users are truly aware of how much information about them is being gathered. I also doubt that most users know how to take advantage of things like the private browsing options in browsers. (I'm not sure I trust that private browsing is truly private. I also don't know how to find out how private it really is.) I do find myself giving out information about myself to Web sites, but it's not because I don't care: it's because I get rushed and don't want to take the extra step, or I forget, or I'm not given a choice and I need to access that site right now. I don't believe in blaming users for the lack of privacy, because the privacy options are always opt-out, not opt-in, and are often hard to find.

And, yes, I know I am writing this on a Google-owned blog site. I've had on my task list for a very, very long time to figure out a way to port this content over to my own web site. It's not so much for privacy purposes (it'll still be a public blog) but because I want the content to be mine even though I'm more likely to lose it than Google is.  The Web has become my workplace and the choice I make is not privacy vs. better ads but privacy vs. getting my work done.  Making it all about advertising trivializes the reality that our personal and professional lives are intertwined with systems we have no control over. This dependency is as frightening as the privacy issue.

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