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Tech Lab

Google privacy: A user’s guide

Google Inc. knows more about me now than it did yesterday. I don’t much care, but that’s just me.

There’s a new privacy policy at Google, effective today. The big change: The company will now combine information on its users from dozens of its online services. It will compare your Google Web searches with the YouTube videos you’ve watched, your messages on the Google Plus social network, and the smartphone apps you buy in the Android Market to create a remarkably detailed dossier on your tastes and habits - which it can then use to better target the advertising it sells.

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However, you do have some control over the information collected by Google and other privacy-eroding online services, like the giant social network Facebook. Each allows you to limit the information you share, and delete stuff that you would rather keep to yourself.

Google, for instance, keeps no personal information about you unless you’re logged into a Google account. And you don’t need an account to run Google Internet searches or to watch YouTube videos.

But to enjoy more features - like posting your own video on YouTube, or sending messages via the e-mail service Gmail - you have to log on. You can get and use a Google account without revealing your real identity, though. Google will still collect information about what you do, but it won’t know who it is tracking.

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Chances are you will reveal your true identity for some Google services. The company’s Google Plus social network allows users to adopt pseudonyms, but since the point is to communicate with friends and family, most will use their real names.

Then there are the cellphones and tablet computers that run Google’s Android operating system. If you want to buy apps at the Android Market, you will have to give up a credit card number, and of course, a real name. What then?

Head to Dashboard, a Google service where you can track the information associated with your Google account. Google has logged every Web search done under my personal account since 2007. Google knows me so well that during a search, the right answer sometimes pops up before I’m done typing the words. I love it, but some find it spooky. They can just tell Dashboard to delete your Web search history, and stop recording future searches.

If you’ve got an Android phone, Google’s Latitude app can track every place you go. My wife and I use Latitude to keep tabs on each other, but by doing so, we could allow Google to permanently record and analyze our movements. You don’t have to; at Dashboard, you can order Google not to save this data, and you can delete any that’s already been stored.

Don’t stop at Dashboard. The data you give to some Google services can only be controlled at their sites. You can delete your YouTube video search history, for instance, but you must do it at YouTube.com. Go to the Google Plus social network to decide which personal information you want to share on that service. On your personal account settings page, you can even delete your entire Google Plus account.

That page also gives you the “nuclear option’’- a way to completely eliminate your existing Google account. That will wipe absolutely everything Google has recorded about your Internet travels - e-mails, YouTube videos, Web search histories - everything.

Maybe I’m too trusting, but the latest Google changes are fine with me. However, I cannot say the same about Facebook’s move last year to adopt Timeline, the new feature that makes it easy for people to see the stuff you posted years ago. I’m not sure I want everybody to see my greatest hits from 2009.

To protect myself the hard way, I can search hundreds of postings and hide the embarrassing ones from public view, a post at a time. In addition, there’s a switch that will turn off public access to all older posts, so they can only be viewed by your friends. It’s a handy way to fend off scandal-seeking strangers.

Still, it’s hard to protect your privacy on Facebook; the service exists to share information about your life. Your best move is to be highly selective in what you post and who you share it with. Be especially careful about adding apps that link your account to outside companies. My own set of apps collects too much of my data to suit me. Now I’m discarding every Facebook app I don’t regularly use, and any that are too hungry for personal information.

We are not facing a privacy apocalypse, despite changes in privacy policies, because every service offers some control for the informed user. Google, Facebook, and other giant companies would track our shoe sizes and what we eat for breakfast if we let them. So don’t let them.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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