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Security

Google streamlines privacy controls, analyzes your security settings

The search giant also creates a privacy site that will "candidly" answer user questions on how Google collects data and what it does with all of that information.

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Google now walks you through your privacy and security settings in one place. Google

Google has made it a bit easier for those seeking more privacy and control over their data to achieve that goal.

Google on Monday launched a tool called My Account that provides a single location for users to make changes to the privacy and security settings across all Google products. The tool walks users through their various privacy settings, including whether Google can collect information on devices that have been used to log into a user's account, search and browsing activity, and track a user's location. A "Sign-in & security" page lets users turn on two-step verification for enhanced Google account security, and see which apps are connected to their Google accounts.

To bolster that effort, Google's new My Account page also includes tools that provide a step-by-step analysis of a user's current Google settings. Google has also launched a new FAQ page to answer questions on how the company collects and uses a person's data.

"Our new site, privacy.google.com, candidly answers these questions, and more," said Guemmy Kim, Google product manager for account controls and settings, in a blog post Monday. "We also explain how we show relevant ads without selling your personal information, how encryption and spam filtering help keep your data safe, and how your information helps customize your experience on Google."

The new tools could prove to be an important step for users to take more control over their Google accounts. While all of the privacy settings available in My Account were previously accessible, they've been running separately on Google's many services, including its mobile apps, YouTube and Gmail. With My Account, privacy settings across all of the company's services can be modified in a single location.

"It also provides more context to help you understand your options and make the right choices for you," Kim said in the blog post.

Google has long been criticized for how it collects data and uses it. The company has been charged by privacy advocates with collecting information on users across its many platforms, including Search, Chrome, Maps, YouTube and others, and using it to serve relevant ads.

Concerns over Google's data collection intensified in 2012 when it combined the privacy policies of its many services. While the company said that the move was designed to streamline its privacy policies and it did not mean it would collect any more information on users, privacy advocates pounced. Lawmakers around the world sought more information on the change and privacy advocates, including the Center for Digital Democracy, filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission, saying that the modification was designed by Google to profit off its users.

"Google fails to inform its users that the new privacy regime is based on its own business imperatives: to address competition from Facebook to grow its capacity to finely profile and target through audience buying; to collect, integrate, and utilize a user's information in order to expand its social media, social search, and mobile marketing activities ... and generally to expand its DoubleClick (advertising) operations," the complaint read.

Although Google overcame those challenges, the company has continued to face criticism that it's putting its business ahead of user privacy. Last June, Google CEO Larry Page addressed those issues head on, saying that, while privacy is a concern, allowing some freedom in collection actually benefits the average person's life. He pointed to Google Street View, a service that lets people input a location and go on street level to see it, as a prime example of a service that was hit with significant criticism, but proved useful.

"It doesn't really change your privacy that much. A lot of these things are like that," Page said, adding that if his company tracked user health data -- something it doesn't currently do -- it could "probably save 100,000 lives next year."

Still, that doesn't mean Google hasn't been forced to make concessions. In January, for instance, Google agreed to modify its privacy policy in the UK to ensure that it conforms to the country's stringent Data Protection Act. Indeed, Google, which has faced investigations and the possibility of steep fines, has made several small modifications to data collection policies in Europe -- where requirements on privacy tend to be a bit tighter than in the US.

In the US, Google stepped up its rhetoric on data privacy after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 leaked documents showcasing the US government's wholesale collection of data on a wide range of services, including Facebook and Google's Gmail. The company, along with Apple and several civil rights organizations, is part of the Reform Government Surveillance program, and was instrumental in speaking out against the Patriot Act. (Some of the Patriot Act's provisions lapsed as of Monday.)

"We have a responsibility to protect the privacy and security of our users' data," Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond, said in March. "At the same time, we want to do our part to help governments keep people safe. We have little doubt that Congress can protect both national security and privacy while taking a significant, concrete step toward restoring trust in the Internet."

That comment was in response to an ongoing debate over whether the Patriot Act, a controversial law that has been used by the government for broad surveillance techniques, is legal. Despite holding a special session last night, the US Senate was unable to pass a bill that would have extended some provisions of the Patriot Act. The Senate is expected to take up the matter again today.

At the center of the tech industry's complaints is Section 215, which the National Security Agency points to as the legal basis for the bulk collection of data across services. Google, along with others, has said that the section is illegal and should be banned. Section 215 has now expired and will remain so unless lawmakers renew the provision.

Google's move on Monday, however, is an attempt by the company to address privacy on its own accord. The privacy and security tools do not add new ways for users to safeguard data or privacy and are only available to Google.com account holders. However, Google argues that they achieve its goal of giving users more control over how their data is collected and used.

"When you trust your personal information with us, you should expect powerful controls that keep it safe and private as well as useful answers to your questions," Kim wrote. "Today's launches are just the latest in our ongoing efforts to protect you and your information on Google."

Last week at its Google I/O developers confab, Google announced another privacy initiative that will give users control over app permissions in its newly announced Android M operating system. The tool will let users determine how apps can access certain features, including the microphone, location data and more.

Looking ahead, Google says that it has "much more to come" on the privacy front. The company also encouraged users to keep visiting its new privacy FAQ page as it adds more answers to questions on new features.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.