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New Google Account Activity lets you know what Google knows about you

Feature is Google's latest effort at improving transparency

By Brad Reed, Network World
March 28, 2012 12:54 PM ET

Network World - If you're confused about what Google does and doesn't know about your online activity, take heart: Google is letting you in on the secret.

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Google today announced that it has created a new Account Activity feature that sends users monthly reports about what they've been doing while signed into Google services such as Google Play, Google+ and Gmail. Among other things, the monthly report will detail the number of emails you've sent and received, the number and types of searches you've conducted while signed into your Google account, the places that you've signed in from and the different platforms and operating systems you've used while signed in.

Andreas Tuerk, a Google product manager, described the new feature as something that "helps you better understand and manage your information on Google." For example, Tuerk says Account Activity can help users see if anyone has been signing into their Google accounts on locations where they don't visit or from devices they don't own, and thus give them the ability to change their password to stop unauthorized use.

The Account Activity feature is part of Google's broader effort to make sure users are more comfortable with the company's new privacy policies that allow for sharing of user data across multiple Google services. Google has maintained that these new policies will benefit users by providing them with more relevant advertising that comes from a broader variety of data on a given user's Internet behavior. Google insists that it is not selling users' data to outside parties and says that users can always sign out of their Google accounts if they don't want their searches tracked and used for personalized advertising.

The changes to Google's privacy policies, which took effect March 1, sparked concern among 36 state Attorneys General who wrote a letter to Google CEO Larry Page asking him to address the potential increased risk of identity theft that users could be subjected to under the new policies. Specifically, the attorneys general claimed that Google's new policy of consolidating users' data profiles across multiple services such as Gmail, YouTube and Google+ could make it easier for hackers to gain users' personal information and to steal their identity.

Google debuted its Account Activity feature on the same week that the Federal Trade Commission released its recommendations on privacy regulations that would give users more control over what information they share on the web. Among other things, the FTC recommended finalizing a Do Not Track service that lets users shut off websites' and browsers' online tracking practices, creating a centralized website for data vendors to reveal how they utilize user data and making new rules to ensure that mobile users are just as well protected from privacy invasions as users on desktop computers.

Read more about security in Network World's Security section.

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