Digital Life

Users Can Control What Google Knows About Them

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Starting Thursday, Google is changing its privacy policy. The change means Google will be able to combine information it collects and use it to shape ads or create new services in combination with other things it offers like maps.


Users of Google - pretty much all of us, these days - may have noticed a little box notifying us that Google is changing its privacy policy March 1st, tomorrow. The box is cute. It says: This stuff matters. Well, to tell us if these changes do matter and what you might be do about them, we've brought back NPR's technology correspondent Steve Henn. Thanks for being here, Steve.


GREENE: So I'm logged onto a computer right now. I'm logged into my Gmail account. I'm on Google's main page. Tell me what is going to be different tomorrow, compared to today.

HENN: Well, Google, as you know, everyone knows, has lots of different services. It has search, it has Google Maps, Google Docs and, until tomorrow, it has had something like 70 different privacy policies. Google is getting rid of more than 60 of those. For many of the services it won't matter much. But for a couple of them, these changes will mean that Google will be able to combine information it collects about you in one service, and use it to shape ads or create new services in combination with other things it does, like maps.

GREENE: And how will that be different in terms of my privacy? I mean are they actually going to know more about me as a user, my habits, my choices?

HENN: Well, they're not going to know more about you than they already do, but they'll be able to sort of mash it up in different ways. So, they'd be able to take your location and look at your calendar, and look at the traffic around you and let you know if you might be late for a certain meeting. In terms of advertising, they'll also be able to take your friends - see what your friends like, see what you're searching for and sell you the same kinds of targeted ads on search that they had been selling you on YouTube.

In terms of the total amount of data that they're collecting about you, it's not going to change.

GREENE: Let's say I'm not comfortable with this, are there things that you would suggest I could do as a user, starting tomorrow, to kind of limit how much Google can collect?

HENN: Sure. So if you log onto Google right now.

GREENE: And I'm logged on right now, at a search page.

HENN: OK, so now anything you do on search and tomorrow anything you did on YouTube, Google would know that that is you. But you can log out and once you've logged out, you can search maps, you can search YouTube and that's not going to be associated with you. There are some things you won't be able to do. You won't be able to open your Gmail account. You won't be able to go into Google Docs.

But there are other things you can do short of signing out, that can also sort of help you control how much information they collect about you. One of the most interesting things I've done digging into this, was discovering my Google Dashboard. I don't know if you've ever used your Google Dashboard...

GREENE: No, what's that?

HENN: Well, it is pretty simple system Google has created that allows you to get a sense of how much information they're collecting about you. So just Google - Google Dashboard and click On.

GREENE: So, I type Google dashboard into the search box, right?

HENN: Into Google.


GREENE: All right, there it is. I am there.

HENN: And so, now you'll see all of these links that show you all of the different Google accounts you have. Probably the most interesting one is your Web history, which is all of your searches and where you've been while you've been logged in to Google.

GREENE: And so, this would give me just sort of a good sense of what they'd have on me.

HENN: Yeah. You can delete individual searches. You can delete the entire history. And you can also turn it off. So you can ask Google to stop collecting and associating your searches with your identity.

GREENE: Well, Steve, I mean I'm pretty tied into Google. Like a lot of people, I have a Gmail account. I mean do I have the option of just walking away totally? Would that be an easy choice?

HENN: Well, it might not be a totally easy choice but it's certainly a possible one. There is a little search engine called DuckDuckGo that doesn't track what you do online. Giving up things like your Gmail account, that's going to be more difficult. But there are other e-mail services out there. There is one I think called NeoMail that really is trying to market itself as a more private option.

Walking away from things like Google Maps is tougher. You know, Google Maps are built into the iPhone. They're built into lots of things. You'd have to sort of make a very concerted effort in almost everything you do online to avoid Google.


GREENE: All right, we've been talking to NPR's technology correspondent, Steve Henn, about the change in Google's privacy policy that goes into effect tomorrow, March 1st.

Steve, thanks.

HENN: Sure thing.


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