Thursday, 1 August 2013

TECH HEAD: My Life, and Past, as Seen Through Google's Dashboard

By Tom Gara | The Wall Street Journal
What is Google (GOOG) Dashboard? In short, it is a one-stop shop that links to all the different buckets of your stored data collected by Google Inc.'s services. From your first Gmail account onward, Google has been collecting an amazing amount of information from you, and Dashboard is where you go to find it.

Strangely enough, the easiest way to find your Google Dashboard is to go to and search for "Google Dashboard." There might be a link to it from somewhere in Gmail, but I have never seen it, and it doesn't seem to make itself obvious anywhere. Google created the Dashboard in 2009 so its users could manage all their privacy setting in our place.
Once you find your Google Dashboard, you're not going to look away. That's because the reality of how much history you share with Google can be unnerving to confront, especially for heavy Web users.

Before we get into it, a few caveats: First, this data can only be collected when you are logged in to a Google service. Second, Google gives you options to turn the collection off, or delete archived data. And third, access to all this information is password protected. But once you get past the login screen, the amount of information there is staggering.

Today, it isn't just all your emails and chat logs, but everything searched for, every YouTube video you watched, all the Web pages you visited, calls you made with Google Voice, even a day-by-day history of every location you have looked up on Google Maps.

The idea that all of this data exists as a mass of ones and zeros deep in a server farm in California, being studied by disinterested robots to serve up better search results and more relevant ads, is something most of us can process in the abstract.

But the fact that it is all viewable right now, on a user-friendly Web page complete with its own search service (yes, you can run Google searches on your own web history), is something else entirely. For example, I searched for every website I've ever visited containing the word "octopus." And yes, the results were wonderful.

They were also sign of disturbing things to come. Are you really ready to see a meticulous recreation of that YouTube binge you went on late one night in 2009?
That's an appetizer compared with your search history—a year-by-year evolution of the biggest and smallest questions you believed the Internet could answer. Looking back on a week of searches from years gone by will give you pangs of nostalgia. It will also give you a deep conviction that nobody else should ever see it.

The kind of analytics you can perform on your own online history is impressive, but the idea anybody else who manages to get your Google password could also do it is eye-opening. The bad outcomes seem endless, from digital blackmail to much more multilayered forms of identity theft.

There's another side to this, of course. Our online histories, in the long run, could become one of our most cherished memories. In 20 years time they will paint a picture of our past more detailed than anything our brains are capable of.

And this is based on what is being stored right now, before wearable computers and self-driving cars. As time goes on, our Google Dashboards will tell us more and more about who we are, and who we were.

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