Google's privacy and security settings are getting a little more user-friendly

By Hayley Tsukayama

The new feature is one of a handful of modifications Google has on offer to update its "My Account" page. Photo / Getty Images
The new feature is one of a handful of modifications Google has on offer to update its "My Account" page. Photo / Getty Images

What's the first thing you would do if you lost your smartphone? According to Google, the answer for most people is to do a simple Google search for their own name.

That's right. A vanity search is one of the first things people do after they've lost their phones -- presumably to find out what information a thief could easily find about them using information from their phones, says Guemmy Kim, Google's project manager for Account Controls and Settings.

For instance people may be worried that someone could find out their name from their phone, and use that to find their address or other personal details from public online information.

While Googling one's name may not be the best way to manage the situation -- you should either find your phone by using location programs or take steps to wipe your phone's data) -- it's also hard to retrain the entire world on best practices for when you lose your phone.

So Google announced Wednesday that a card linking to your account settings will soon come up when you search for your own name and will guide you to its new tool designed to help you find your phone.

The new feature is one of a handful of modifications Google has on offer to update its "My Account" page.

The company first introduced the page last year in an effort to make privacy and security settings more accessible, user-friendly and well-designed -- three adjectives you probably would never associate with privacy and security settings.

"We're using data to improve product experiences" for the notoriously dense area of user account controls, Kim said. "And putting in a link to a user's account from search is an easy entry point," she said.

The new card feature, which will roll out in the coming weeks, will come up on the right side of the screen on desktops; on mobile, it will display over the top result.

It's the first time that Google has linked users' account info directly into its search engine. Users will need to be signed in for the vanity search to work -- otherwise Google wouldn't be able to know your name is your name.

The card will highlight another new feature called "Find Your Phone" which will help you locate your treasured device. It's similar to Apple's "Find my iPhone" or Samsung's "Find my Mobile" but with a particular focus on protecting the information in your Google account. On Android phones, it will also let you remotely ring your device, remotely set up a special lockscreen so you easily can be contacted, and let you sign out of your device remotely. Signing out of your account should help minimize the access a thief can have to your Google information.

The feature also offers a nuclear option: you can wipe your phone remotely if you're sure it's never coming back.

Another "My Account" update involves Google's latest voice-control technology. Users with Google's app also can now say "Ok, Google, Show me my Google Account" to be taken directly to their accounts page.

The updates to "My Account" reflect a larger trend in the way companies look at privacy settings and a shift in the way companies are designing their data controls with some of the same principles as their commercial products. Though users really curious about the company's Google's practices may still want to take a deep dive into the policy, efforts such as "My Account" give users a simpler, less scary way to feel in control of their data.

These more common-sense tools are important for users, who are becoming more aware of the massive amounts of data they're pouring into their Google and other accounts, said Jules Polonetsky, chief executive of the Future of Privacy Forum -- a think tank promoting responsible data use that's backed by a mix of foundations and companies, including Google. Tech companies as a whole, he said, are behind when it comes to designing for true usability.

"You can get in a rental car you've never driven before and be on your way," he said. "We've been driving browsers for decades now, and we're still lacking these basic consumer-friendly features.

- Washington Post

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