Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Google wants to know everything about you


I, for one, welcome our new bithead overlords.

Eric Schmidt said
“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?’ ”
How? Gathering personal data from everywhere. Which is not hard - most of us leave tracks all over the infosphere*, most of it just sitting there. Do you know how to encrypt email? What about using onion routing to mask your IP address? And for the love of God if you use onion routing do you know that some programs leak data to DNS servers to establish the onion route?

If the infosphere were a forest most of us are loud rubes from the city, gawking and tromping all over the place, being loud and scaring off game for a country mile. Bird watchers and fishermen are wincing as we come tromping by, wishing you'd just get back in your Winnebago and go away. It was nice before you showed up and it will be nicer once you leave.

But .. Google. Personal data in the hands of the unscrupulous is double-plus un-good.
After all, here we have a corporation whose executive are not publicly elected, whose activities are not subject to any form of public oversight, and who chose - not reluctantly, but enthusiastically and without the slightest complaint - to comply with censorship in China. To be honest, I'd probably trust the government more with the kind of information that Google wants to amass under the flimsy excuse of helping me find information and services I know how to find perfectly well already, thank you.
As an aside - where you stand on this depends on how you feel about government. Which in turn might depend on how recently you've been goosed by it. But I digress.

I don't want to get too deeply into this but it's worth noting that while we don't elect executives in Google neither do we elect the executives in our government. We elect the guys who are in charge who in turn hire the guys who are running things. We elect the CEO. Get a layer or two down and the guys who actually run the government are pretty much just like the guys who run Google.

That's not where I was going with this.

Transparent Society

David Brin speculated that cameras would soon be everywhere, would be networked and capture our public moments. Getting down to the bedrock issue here, we get down to a who watches the watcher problem. We have two ways of living in this future;

* The cops (The Man, John Law) monitor the cameras. Recordings are kept by them, for their use.


* There is no Monitor Central. The feed from the cameras is tossed into the ether for anyone to view.

I'm paraphrasing this badly - Brin is a writer and he does a much better job of this. Go read the article if you have not already done so.

Where we're at is that this is not a deal you can stop. The cameras are coming. Our only choice is to have a society where the cameras are controlled by John Law or by no one at all. It's that stark.

Here is the problem, and where Brin's lovely thought experiment fails; cameras are mounted, paid for and installed not by a bunch of grubby hackers but by the Laws. Would your average bureaucrat just hand over data?

I won't hold my breath.

Where I'm Going With This

You probably saw this coming a mile away. Is the man collecting data on you? If we are tromping through the infosphere like tourists from the city then our tracks in a thousand government databases are fossilized footprints. You're known about a thousand different ways from Sunday.

Integration of all these databases will happen. Call it empire building or 'but the people paid for this data they have a right to good data'** or a well-intentioned effort to thwart the pressing crisis of the day ... it will be slow and expensive but it will happen.

Google is plowing forward with the same plans - but with a million sources of data that are not controlled by the State. They're doing it better and faster.

What Google - and a thousand scruffy hackers who want to be the next Google - are up to can be seen not as evil or even bad but an effort to build a public feed of data. Transparent Society Version 2.0.

Intentioned or not this is an effort to construct a better place to live than the one we'll get if we do nothing.***

On the one side is that massive data integration by the State - and if you think you'll see much data from that, you'll be waiting a long time. On the flip side all the other data, just put out there for people to use. The State's default mode is to hide everything, Google's is to put it out there for everyone to use.

I know which society I'd prefer to live in.

Cross Posted to The Daily Brief.

*I use this not in the way that a learned policy wonk would so he can up his fee for a speaking gig but in a mock-ironic sense. In fact assume that all consultant and wonk talk above is used in this sense.

** Hat-tip to Ellen Ullman.

*** Or not.
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