For quite some time now, I’ve been writing about how “search” has become the center of gravity of our informational ecosystem, and that a primary externality of our dependence on search has been the threat to privacy. On numerous occasions I’ve called on Google to engage in value-conscious design in order to protect user privacy, and specifically argued for the creation of a Google Data Privacy center where users can see exactly what data Google has collected about them from their expansive infrastructure of dataveillance, edit or remove this data from Google’s servers, and make other necessary adjustments of their privacy settings.
All this said, I was quite excited at the launch of Google Dashboard:
Google describes Dashboard as a simple way to view “the data associated with your account”, and that it will provide users “greater transparency and control over their own data.” Elsewhere, Dashboard has been described as a “big concession to users’ privacy rights“, as the answer to the question: “What does Google know about me?”, and as a place providing users “more control over the personal information stored in Google’s databases“.
Unfortunately, Google Dashboard is none of these things.
What Google Dashboard provides is a single place to browse the list of most of the Google services you’ve signed up for, quick links to their individual settings pages (including privacy settings & policies), summary statistics of your usage of these services, and indications of what details I’ve shared with others.
While this is a very convenient new interface, and a helpful reminder of some of the services and settings that I might have long forgotten were activated on my account, Dashboard isn’t providing any new transparency or new control over the data Google knows about me. I still only see that information Google wants to make available to me through its interfaces. I still only get to control the limited data Google allows me to control.
Sure, from the Dashboard I can go and look at my Web search history, for example (and this screenshot confirms that my TrackMeNot Firefox Extension is successfully sending ghost queries to Google!), and from there I can remove stored searches from the service. But remember, this is only removing the searches from the Web History service, not from Google’s primary search query logs (as Google acknowledges here). There is no new level of control over the personal information stored in Google’s databases. Simply convenience.
(And, FWIW, Dashboard could be made even more convenient if Google simply had a link to “Dashboard” in the upper right corner after you log in, rather than having to click Settings -> Google Account Settings -> View data stored with this account)
The convenience Dashboard provides is helpful. Users should be regularly reminded of what services they sign up for, what information is being collected, and what their current privacy settings are. And hopefully Facebook will follow Google’s lead and provide similar convenience. But, unfortunately, Google Dashboard is no concession to users’ privacy rights. A helpful step, but we still have a long road ahead of us.
UPDATE: Others agree with my assessment of Dashboard. ReadWriteWeb notes that “Google’s Privacy Dashboard Doesn’t Tell Us Anything We Didn’t Know Before”, while Mashable recognizes that “Dashboard is nothing more than a selected list of privacy-related settings”. And Fred Stutzman correctly observes in the comments below that “By creating this interface, Google gets to functionally define the “sense” of information collection/retention. That is, their sense of the boundaries of collection will be informed by the interface. But…this interface minimizes the true extent of data retention.” Indeed.