Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Google is watching you

'Big Brother' row over plans for personal database

by Robert Verkaik, Law Editor

The Independent & The Independent on Sunday (May 24 2007)

Google, the world's biggest search engine, is setting out to create the most comprehensive database of personal information ever assembled, one with the ability to tell people how to run their lives.

In a mission statement that raises the spectre of an internet Big Brother to rival Orwellian visions of the state, Google has revealed details of how it intends to organise and control the world's information.

The company's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, said during a visit to Britain this week: "The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as 'What shall I do tomorrow?' and 'What job shall I take?'".

Speaking at a conference organised by Google, he said : "We are very early in the total information we have within Google. The algorithms [software] will get better and we will get better at personalisation."

Google's declaration of intent was publicised at the same time it emerged that the company had also invested GBP 2 million in a human genetics firm called 23andMe. The combination of genetic and internet profiling could prove a powerful tool in the battle for the greater understanding of the behaviour of an online service user.

Earlier this year Google's competitor Yahoo unveiled its own search technology, known as Project Panama, which monitors internet visitors to its site to build a profile of their interests.

Privacy protection campaigners are concerned that the trend towards sophisticated internet tracking and the collating of a giant database represents a real threat, by stealth, to civil liberties.

That concern has been reinforced by Google's $3.1 billion bid for DoubleClick, a company that helps build a detailed picture of someone's behaviour by combining its records of web searches with the information from DoubleClick's "cookies", the software it places on users' machines to track which sites they visit.

The Independent has now learnt that the body representing Europe's data protection watchdogs has written to Google requesting more information about its information retention policy.

The multibillion-pound search engine has already said it plans to impose a limit on the period it keeps personal information.

A spokesman for the Information Commissioner's Office, the UK agency responsible for monitoring data legislation confirmed it had been part of the group of organisations, known as the Article 29 Working Group, which had written to Google.

It is understood the letter asked for more detail about Google's policy on the retention of data. Google says it will respond to the Article 29 request next month when it publishes a full response on its website.

The Information Commissioner's spokeswoman added: "I can't say what was in it only that it was written in response to Google's announcement that will hold information for no more than two years".

Ross Anderson, professor of Security Engineering at Cambridge University and chairman of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, said there was a real issue with "lock in" where Google customers find it hard to extricate themselves from the search engine because of the interdependent linkage with other Google services, such as iGoogle, Gmail and YouTube. He also said internet users could no longer effectively protect their anonymity as the data left a key signature.

"A lot of people are upset by some of this. Why should an angst-ridden teenager who subscribes to MySpace have their information dragged up thirty years later when they go for a job as say editor of the Financial Times? But there are serious privacy issues as well. Under data protection laws, you can't take information, that may have been given incidentally, and use it for another purpose. The precise type and size of this problem is yet to be determined and will change as Google's business changes."

A spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner said that because of the voluntary nature of the information being targeted, the Information Commission had no plans to take any action against the databases.

Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy Counsel, said the company intended only doing what its customers wanted it to do. He said Mr Schmidt was talking about products such as iGoogle, where users volunteer to let Google use their web histories. "This is about personalised searches, where our goal is to use information to provide the best possible search for the user. If the user doesn't want information held by us, then that's fine. We are not trying to build a giant library of personalised information. All we are doing is trying to make the best computer guess of what it is you are searching for."

Privacy protection experts have argued that law enforcement agents - in certain circumstances - can compel search engines and internet service providers to surrender information. One said: "The danger here is that it doesn't matter what search engines say their policy is because it can be overridden by national laws".

How Google grew to dominate the internet

It's all about the algorithms. When Google first started up, in summer 1998, it quickly made its mark by being the internet's best, most efficient search engine. Now Google wants to know everything - all the knowledge contained on the world wide web, and everything about you as a computer user, too.

The key, at every step of the way, has been the methodology the company has used to catalogue and present information. The first stroke of genius that the company's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had while they were still in graduate school was to measure responses to an internet search not only by the frequency of the search word but by the number of times a given web page was accessed via other web pages. It was a revolutionary idea at the time, now copied by every one of their rivals.

A decade later, their technical brilliance is operating on an altogether more ambitious scale. Google is now a $150 billion (GBP 77 billion) company and a seemingly unstoppable corporate, as well as technical juggernaut.

The big question, of course, is whether the idealism that first fired up Page and Brin can survive in a dirty corporate world where information is not just an intellectual ideal, but also a legal and political hot potato involving profound issues of privacy, intellectual property rights and freedom of speech. "You can make money without doing evil", runs one of their most celebrated mantras. Does that extend to signing a deal with China whereby its search functions will be subject to state censorship? The furore over that particular decision, made at the beginning of last year, still rages.

Google's activities thus touch on some of the key philosophical questions of our digital age. Because of its power and prominence, it will also be the benchmark by which we come to measure many of the answers.

(c) 2007 Independent News and Media Limited

Bill Totten


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