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Your life story, as data points

A look at Google Dashboard reveals just how much information you’ve shared

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / November 12, 2009

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Now appearing on Google: The story of my life. And yours.

Not everyone can read it, but the engineers and advertising specialists at Google can. And now users can get a peek, thanks to Google Dashboard, a new service developed at the search giant’s outpost in Zurich. Dashboard lets registered Google users see what the company knows about them. If you’ve got a Google account, just punch up www.google.com/dashboard, and get ready to feel your skin crawl.

Google knows just about everything about me. No deep, dark secrets; just thousands of tiny data points which, when put together, could provide a pretty thorough biography.

Start with standard Web search data, the backbone of Google’s business. Every search you perform is recorded and preserved for future analysis, to help Google improve its service. Study a person’s searches over months or years, and you can pretty much write his life story. Dashboard let me review my Web searches going back to 2006. Long-forgotten queries about airline tickets, books and magazine articles, a new clarinet for my daughter - they’re all still there.

“It’s really unprecedented in the history of mankind what we’re sharing,’’ said Greg Conti, an assistant professor of computer science at the US Military Academy and author of the book “Googling Security.’’

Conti refuses to get a Google account, the better to preserve his privacy. After all, you don’t need an account to run Google searches. But that doesn’t mean you’re entirely anonymous.

Google puts a “cookie’’ inside your Web browser, a little bit of data that identifies the particular computer you’re using. Google also tracks the Internet address of your computer, which gives it your approximate location. After nine months, the address data is deleted; the cookie information is wiped after 18 months. Only then are your stored searches truly anonymous.

Ironically, using Dashboard makes me glad to have a Google account. I can look up my past searches and know exactly what Google knows about me.

Of course, Google account holders can sign up for additional services - free e-mail, an online appointment calendar and address book, document creation and management, and the Google Voice telephone and messaging service. Each encourages you to hand over specific information about yourself, friends, family, and business colleagues. The services provide instant access to your vital data through any Web-connected device, anywhere in the world. But they also provide the data to Google. How much do you want them to know?

As a journalist, I want people to find me. So I have no objection to providing all my phone numbers to the Google Voice service. But what about other people’s phone numbers?

I’ve accumulated thousands of numbers and e-mail addresses over the years. I recently uploaded them from my BlackBerry to my Google address book. Seeing them displayed on Dashboard helped me realize my folly. There’s no reason to think that Google will abuse the data, but what if their computer network is breached, or somebody simply steals my Google account password? Storing this information online endangers my privacy and that of many others. So I’ve wiped my Google address book.

Seeing all that I’ve shared with Google laid out on a single page got me thinking seriously about privacy for the first time in quite awhile. That’s the genius of Dashboard, and the creation of this tool gives me confidence Google respects my right to privacy. But what about everybody else? We pass around chunks of personal data to hundreds of other websites. Think about what Amazon.com knows about you, or Facebook, or even Boston.com. Then there are the Internet advertising networks that follow you as you browse from one site to another, tracking everything you read in an effort to send you the most enticing ads.

“I think if we could lay out everything we’ve disclosed online, we’d be stunned,’’ Conti said. And even if each individual site follows Google’s lead and creates its own Dashboard, nobody has the time or patience to scour them all.

Want a simple solution? Unplug that computer. Otherwise, your only recourse is constant vigilance. Be choosey about giving personal data to Internet sites. Keep your address book to yourself. Regularly remove cookies from your browser, to keep advertisers from tracking your online activities. Consider using an ad blocking program, because that will often block ad cookies.

Every little bit of caution helps, but only so much. You give away a little more of yourself with every website searched and every e-mail sent. Each keystroke helps to write the story of your life, and there’s no telling who might be reading it.

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