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The weird experience of Google Dashboard

October 2013

Yes, I did take a wrong turn when I was driving across Iowa via back roads to my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And, no, I didn't imagine that Google would keep a record of that, such that I can click on July 28 on a small calendar in Location History in Google Dashboard, see my route across Iowa in red, and view the unhappy 20-mile jag in what should have been a relatively straight line.

(It wasn't my fault, he rationalizes. When you're taking back roads, the route out of a small town can be confusing, especially if you're enjoying looking around and not paying attention.)

I have the Google Maps app on my iPad mini, which is connected to the cellular data network. Even though I wasn't using the app (given my preference for Apple's Maps app), it was apparently recording where I had been.

In addition, at some point I must have identified my home and work locations in the app, because the Location History Dashboard shows a pie chart telling me the percentage of time I spent at home, at work, and "time spent out" in the past week, as well as the average number of hours.

It also has a list of places I've visited (such as Le Mars, Iowa, on August 3, 2013), but for some reason the Countries Visited section doesn't include Germany in the list of countries visited, even though I was there with my iPad for 10 days this summer and used the Google Maps app. The My Trips section also only shows Sioux Falls.

Needless to say, I was surprised to see the ways in which Google is documenting my life when I perused the data in Google Dashboard. If you have a Google account, such as Gmail, and are logged in to that account, your activity is being recorded.

This utility has been available for nearly four years — created just for the purpose of letting you see what information Google is storing. Plus it allows you to manage (and delete) what Google knows.

The Dashboard also gives you, in one place, an overview of all your Google accounts and what you have stored in them: Gmail, Google+, Picasa, Google Calendar, etc.

Let's take a look at my Web History. I had known that Google tracks searches for the purpose of giving relevant ads, but I'd always read that this information isn't associated with your name. Yet here's my search history, along with everything else Google knows about me, including my name, location, email, and more.

Click on the Web History icon, and a drop-down section shows a record of my searches in seven different categories: Web, Images, News, Products, Videos, and Books. Looking at my history, I learn that on July 4, 2011, I searched for videos related to "Piraha" (an interesting Amazon tribe that has a language that's different from any other known language).

You can remove select items from your search history, but I don't see any way to globally remove everything.

Web History also includes a record of your searches in these additional categories: Shopping, Ads, Blogs, Visual Search, Travel, and Finance. If you click on the All History link when you're looking at a specific category, you'll see some charts of your daily, weekly, and monthly activity, as well as your Top Clicks, Top Queries, and Top Sites.

Over on the top right side of the page, you'll see a little gear icon. Click on it, and you'll see Settings as an option. Select that, and you'll see a Turn Off button. Click that, and Google will no longer track your Web history. But they warn: "Turning off your search history may limit or disable features such as Google Now, smarter search results and predictions, and recent searches on mobile devices." Me? I'm leavin' it on.

What else do I learn in Google Dashboard? That I own two Android devices, have a blog on Blogger, an Adsense account, eight Google Docs shared with me, 3,864 conversations in Gmail, five photos shared in Picasa, 10 calls in my Google Voice call history, 20 tracks in my music library, 36 downloaded apps on my Android devices, 2 contacts in Google Talk, 10 purchases via Google Wallet in Google's app and media store, and zero videos uploaded to YouTube.

For each of these, I can click on a link and see full details. Imagine what someone could learn if he or she got hold of your password.

That's my life, according to Google. Who would have thought it?

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© 2013 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen