Google’s Privacy and Dashboard Options: Still a Tangled Web

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Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

A woman walks past a tunnel of Google homepage logos at the Google campus near Venice Beach, in Los Angeles, California January 13, 2012.

Let’s get this out of the way: What Google’s missing — and fair warning to Google-philes, I’m unbending on this — is the equivalent of an opt-out panic button. With services like YouTube, Picassa, Gmail, GChat, Google+ and dozens more all living under one Google umbrella, there’s simply no good reason the company shouldn’t implement a failsafe that lets users automatically set every application’s privacy settings to their most conservative levels.

I say that, because I’ve been clicking through my Google Dashboard settings this morning, to celebrate, with Google, their new “beautifully simple and intuitive” all-on-one privacy policy, and I’m finding it anything but “simple and intuitive.” In fact I’ve been having quite the time locating every app’s full privacy settings, as well as zapping data the company says it’s collected and stored about my browsing (general, across all apps) habits.

(MORE: Google’s New Privacy Policy: 5 Ways to Minimize Your Online Exposure)

Take YouTube, for instance. Google’s one-stop shop for tweaking privacy settings is supposed to be Google Dashboard. Visit your personal Google Dashboard and you’ll find info-we-collected and settings links for all of Google’s apps. Scroll down a bit and there’s YouTube, with a slew of links that send you off to the application’s nether regions to fiddle settings like “viewing history,” “playlists,” “subscriptions” and so forth. The “manage privacy” settings link, like the cheese, stands alone. Click it, and you have a handful of options involving ads and stats — turn all that off, and you’re done, right? Wrong. Last I checked, “viewing history,” which stores all the videos you’ve viewed (and information Google uses to profile you) was a privacy-related setting, too. Google Dashboard makes it look like it’s not, placing it with the app’s routine settings, such that users in a hurry, who just slide down the Dashboard page clicking anything with “privacy” in the syntax, will likely miss this crucial privacy-related tracker.

Then there’s Dashboard’s bugs. In my Dashboard view, the entry for Google Music — Google’s online music streaming service — says I have a total of 866 tracks. But when I click the “Manage Music” option, Google Music says I have nothing, nada, nein, nyet in my library. That’s because I deleted those 866 tracks last May. For some reason Dashboard thinks they’re still there, leaving me to second-guess all of Dashboard’s settings. Are they telling the whole truth? Is my data still there, somewhere, or is Dashboard just throwing a glitch?

Has Google gone to lengths to make it easier to locate and grapple with privacy settings across its app-verse? Absolutely. But just as more lifelike computer-generated humans in movies call attention to their imperfections, the closer we get to what we deserve from Google’s app suite (and the more these privacy policy changes send us in to see what data the company’s accumulated about us) and the more galling the shortcomings seem.

In addition to a clearer, less buggy Dashboard, I’d love to see Google implement a privacy hub with master switches for all this stuff. Say I don’t want Google tracking any of my browsing (again, across all apps) history for profiling purposes…why not a switch I can flip that disables it for everything?  (Or, alternatively, an intuitive slider, like in the security settings for older version’s of Internet Explorer, where dragging the handle down to the most secure setting effectively turned everything off.) If you want to leave data collecting on in some apps, you’d have the option to visit them individually and make it so, but if I’d rather nix everything in one fell swoop, I want that option, too. Think of it as a kind of “nuclear” option, analogous to the wipe job browsers perform when you reset them.

The operative word here is “option.” I’m not demanding Google stop tracking and profiling me, or that they make that the default setting (though the latter would surely be nice). I’m just saying things that ought to be transparent still aren’t, and that I want better, clearer ways to control all that tracking and profiling. After all, we’re not talking about an agnostic PC environment with dozens of third-party apps, each with its own nonstandard interface. These are all Google apps, already more or less consolidated. The company thus has the power to make this so, and it should.

MORE: How Google’s New Privacy Policy Could Give Governments Greater Access to Your Data