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'Google Alarm' plug-in tries to wake the world up to privacy issues

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Google and your privacy
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Google Alarm" alerts users when they visit a website that sends Google info
  • The browser plug-in was developed independently of Google
  • It runs on the Firefox and Internet Explorer Web browsers
  • Google says there are "less ear-splitting ways" to learn about privacy

(CNN) -- The sound of the 'Google Alarm' is hard to miss.

Web users who install this browser plug-in hear a loud, buzzing noise whenever they visit a website that relays information to Google.

It might seem intuitive that Google tracks the Web activity of users who search for things at Google.com. But what's less obvious is that unassuming Web users might have their browsing behavior tracked on other sites, too.

Jamie Wilkinson, a technology entrepreneur unaffiliated with Google, created the 'Google Alarm' plug-in in an attempt to clear up any confusion.

"I'm very interested in exploring privacy issues on the internet, and the collection of data through these tracking bugs that are installed all over the Web is normally a very silent experience," he said. "And so my hope is to make it something more visceral, and raise awareness about the issue."

Wilkinson released the alarm plug-in on his website this week.

The plug-in currently works on the Internet Explorer and Firefox Web browsers. It tracks information that is sent to Google Analytics -- a product that allows Web developers to gather statistics on site traffic and activity. Some metrics available through Google Analytics range from the number of visitors tracked over a duration of time to the amount of time people spend on a site.

Google maintains that while it gathers data on the browsing habits of users who have installed the Analytics tool, it has made these actions clear.

"We like to think there are less ear-splitting ways of being transparent with users, and that's why we've created tools like Google Dashboard which shows users what information they share with us, and provides direct links to control their personal settings and an opt-out for Google Analytics," said Brian Richardson, a Google spokesman.

Google offers ways in which its users can navigate their online privacy, or "opt out" of having their information tracked by Google altogether.

According to Richardson, information provided to website owners through Google Analytics is completely anonymous and cannot be tied to an individual user. The opt-out option has been created such that if a user does not want the anonymous data sent directly to the website owner, a piece of software can be downloaded and installed on a computer, which would then discontinue sending information directly to Google servers.

Google users can also make use of the Google Dashboard, which is a tool that shows users all the information associated with your Google account, and allows users to track the information that are stored on its servers. Users are also able to control their personal privacy settings through a number of links on the dashboard.

Thousands of people seem to want a little help in navigating all of these choices, however, as more than 15,000 downloads of the Google Alarm plug-in were recorded in its first week on the Web, according to Wilkinson.

"In my tests, I found that something like 70 to 85 percent of websites that I visit on a daily basis have some kind of Google tracking bug on them....I use Google analytics on all my websites," said Wilkinson.

"Despite the fact that you can install and look at your Google dashboard doesn't meant that people are aware that you can do these things."

Another Google product, Google Street View, has sparked controversy over the past few months, where the company admitted to collecting personal Web activity of users on unsecured Wi-Fi networks from Street View vehicles, and is facing multiple lawsuits in the U.S.

"We're working with governments to resolve issues relate to the Wi-Fi situation. We have been very up front and said that it was a complete mistake and we apologized for that situation. And we're now working with data protection authorities across the world to resolve any outstanding issues," said Richardson.

Google maintains that user trust maintains its priority. But in a world where a company holds such large amounts of information, how much should an internet user trust Google?

"Actually most users still do [trust us]....Privacy online is knowing what information you're sharing, being able to control that information, and who you share it with," said Richardson. "That's why all our products at Google -- the analytics opt-out browser, the dashboard, and so many other tools -- that you can find at our privacy center are built to provide that provide that level of choice and transparency so users can control their privacy online."

It is now up to users to decide how much trust they place in Google.

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

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