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Operating Systems

Keep tabs on what Google knows about you

Hiding your wireless network from Google's insatiably hungry information sniffers is easier than tracking your personal data stored on Google servers.

Google is listening.

As Marguerite Reardon and Tom Krazit reported on May 14 in CNET's Signal Strength blog, the search giant has swept up wireless-network addresses, along with other data its Street View vehicles have been collecting on their unprecedented world tour.

Google or some other company may have already plotted the location of your home or office wireless network, but you can make it more difficult for the next nosy megacorporation--or a neighbor or passing stranger--to discover your hot spot by disabling its Service Set Identifier (SSID).

By default, wireless access points transmit their presence to let wireless devices discover them. Even though a determined sniffer can use other techniques to find the network, running silent will discourage low-effort snoops.

The first line of wireless defense is an encrypted, password-protected connection, which every network should use. If your network is used by a small number of devices that store its SSID and/or connect automatically, you may not need to broadcast the network's name.

Instructions for turning off an access point's SSID transmission vary from device to device. Open your router's settings and disable the option for "SSID Broadcast" or something similar. For example, the steps for doing so on a Linksys WAP54G router are on the Linksys support site.

Get a load of Google's lowdown on you
To view the information Google's servers store about you (or at least the amount the company is willing to fess up to storing), sign in to your Google account and scroll through the Google Dashboard. On a single page you'll find settings for and information about your Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Voice, YouTube, and other Google accounts, including an extensive search history. (I described how to slice and dice your Google Web history in a post from last July.)

The dashboard is a great way to review and update your Google profile, Checkout purchase information, Google Sync settings, Picasa Web albums, and contacts. You can also revoke access to any service you've allowed to connect directly to your Google account by clicking the "Websites authorized to access the account" link under Accounts. This opens a window listing all such services along with a link to remove each one, if you wish.

Google Dashboard list of services with automatic access to the account
The Google Dashboard makes it easy to revoke a service's permission to access your account automatically. Google

The Google Toolbar for Firefox takes the sharing to another level but also gives you slightly more control over the personal information you store on Google servers. For example, click the wrench drop-down menu on the right, choose Options, and click the Search tab. The options to store your search history locally and see suggested search terms as you type are selected by default.

Google Toolbar for Firefox search options
The search settings in the Google Toolbar let you customize some of the information you share with Google. Google

Also selected by default is the option at the bottom of the dialog to share usage statistics with Google. Some toolbar features may require this setting to be enabled to function properly, but there's really no harm in not sharing more than necessary with Google.

Note that there's no equivalent toolbar for Google's own Chrome browser, but Chrome is in many ways one big Google toolbar.

Of course, the best way to prevent Google from maintaining a dossier on your Web habits is by using a competing service. But that company is just as likely to find out and record everything it can about you. These services may not cost any money, but that doesn't mean they're free. The price we pay for the convenience of universal access to our digital lives is any real semblance of privacy.