Google knows a lot about you. To date, they’ve been pretty good about handling that information responsibly, but many people are still concerned over the quality and quantity of information held by the search giant. Additionally, other websites have learned to expect that we all use Google and have created tools to harvest as much of that information as possible, often without the user’s knowledge or consent. Google has added some new tools and policies to give more control to the users, and there are some third-party tools and plugins to protect your information from Google and others. This guide will demonstrate some of the simple ways you can choose for yourself what information you give out when using various Google products like Gmail, Chrome, and even the standard web search. Some of these tools limit what Google can see about you, others are meant to limit what information others can gather while using Google products.
1. Google Dashboard
Privacy settings for nearly all Google products and services can be accessed from a single page – the Google Dashboard. Here, you can review individual settings for online services like Buzz, Reader, Picasa, YouTube, and more.
To use it, you simply log in to http://www.google.com/dashboard/ with your normal Google login and change any settings you wish.
2. Chrome’s Incognito Mode
Chances are good that if you’ve used Chrome for any length of time, you already know about Incognito Mode. For those who don’t, you’ll be glad you’re reading about it now. Chrome was the first major browser to include a “private surfing” mode which allows users to browse the web without accumulating a trail of crumbs on the local PC.
Sites visited while in Incognito Mode will not show up in the browser’s history, and will not be allowed to leave cookies and other tracking information behind. Other browser makers have since added similar features to their products, to the general benefit of all.
For some time now, Google has been allowing Gmail users to log in using a secure (SSL) connection. If enabled, your traffic to and from Gmail is much more resistant to eavesdropping and tampering by your work or ISP or others that may have access to your traffic as it flows from one end to the other.
To enable encryption temporarily, simply add an s to the end of http, making the address more like https://www.gmail.com. If you’d like that change to be permanent, open your Gmail settings to the General tab, and under Browser Connection choose Always use https.
Note by editor: Google has recently make the https the default connection for all Gmail accounts. Unless you specifically turn it off, your Gmail connection should be secure.
Much like the Gmail SSL connections mentioned above, you can now perform your normal Google searched using a secure connection. This of course doesn’t have the slightest affect on what Google knows about you, but it reduces the ability of unscrupulous web sites to track you based on your searches.
It works just like Gmail’s SSL connection above. Simply add an s to the end of the http to get an encrypted search page.
SSL Enforcer Chrome Plugin
I make several Google searches per day, but as a Chrome user, I search with the omnibar much more often than I go to the Google homepage. To get omnibar searches to use the new SSL feature, I use the SSL Enforcer extension. This will detect when a site supports SSL, and automatically use that option whenever available, including with Google searches.
This extension, however, is not foolproof. It needs to make a standard, unencrypted connection to the page before it can create the secure one. It’s probably not a good idea to rely on this for heavy security but it can be very useful to help protect casual browsing.
Google Analytics is an extremely popular tool for web admins to gather information about the users of their sites. There’s nothing inherently wrong with analytics, and it’s most commonly used to gather basic information that any serious web admin would want, such as the browser and OS types of their visitors. Some people, however, are uncomfortable sharing their system or user info with the world so Google provides a simple way to take yourself out of the Analytics equation. By using the new Opt-Out Tool, you can install a plugin for your browser (IE 7+, Chrome 4+, Firefox 3.5+) that will make you essentially invisible to sites using Analytics.
What other ways do you use to protect yourself from the Google’s clutches?