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Google is watching you

Kenticky Herald/John Battelle | November 14 2005

Google. Google. Google. It's all we can talk about these days in Silicon Valley, where the 7-year-old company has once again validated our collective belief in the power of technology to change our culture (and make a lot of people rich in the process).

But what are we creating each time we head to Google (or Yahoo, or Ask, or any other search-driven site) and tap our intentions, fears and hopes into their blank boxes and blinking cursors? After all, this is where we first worry about ``cancer symptoms,'' it's where we ``compare prices Chrysler minivan'' and it's how we ``find lost lovers.'' And when you type your own name into Google, are you pleased with the results?

It's no wonder that search has about it the whiff of the holy. But while search is an extraordinary service, we're almost laughably early in its development -- and even earlier in understanding the many ways that search is changing our lives. Using the Web opens worlds of information to us, and in many ways makes it easier to make decisions, forge contacts and transact business. But as more and more information about us moves into the digital realm, we might want to ask whether there are downsides riding along with all those conveniences.

Turn search inside out and you'll get a taste of some far-reaching implications. In other words, don't think about search as a set of your queries and your results, but rather from the point of view of the companies that are providing search to us. Search companies are increasingly capable of tracking our every move online, in effect monitoring our ``clickstream.''

From the platforms that Google, Yahoo and others already have built, we see the outlines of an entirely new digital environment. We already have e-mail with unlimited storage, for example. And maps that include razor-sharp satellite imagery, driving directions and local information all mashed together. Instant messaging with built-in voice telephony, desktop tools that search your desktop and your history of what you've searched for, social networking, news reports, blogging -- you name it, and search companies are now offering it.

Soon, we may see even more search-driven services, for free: free classifieds, free wireless connectivity, and free word processing and office productivity software. (No wonder Microsoft is worried.)

But consider the concentration of information about us that resides with the search companies, or that's accessible using their tools. It goes beyond the database of intentions we create when we click around the Web. Because we are increasingly moving our digital lives from the constraints of the PC to the relatively boundless Web, we also are creating virtual profiles of ourselves. Hundreds of millions of us store our e-mail, photographs, social networks, contact databases and personal journals on the Web, and we are adding to that pile at an extraordinary rate.

Put together the bread crumbs we leave as we navigate the Web with the mountain of personal information we've posted there, and add to that the e-mails we send and receive, and you have an enormous storehouse of data available to the search companies.

So far, we have seen only the initial glimmerings of how search companies use the data we generate when we use their services. The first inkling comes in the form of customized advertising. You've seen the ads along the right side and top of Google -- they are usually extremely relevant to the term you typed into the search box. Why are they so good? Because Google watches what you type and tries to match ads to your stated intent. But what if Google and others knew what you had searched for before, or other sites you had been to, or other purchases you made? Now that's custom advertising.

Could Google and other search companies do such a thing? Of course they could, and they will. If you aren't a registered user with, say, Yahoo, Google, or AOL, your clickstream can be identified only via an ephemeral IP address -- you're just a computer using the Web. But that anonymity changes if you sign up for an account at Google (via its toolbar or mail application) or register with Yahoo -- both steps require you to provide your name and other information to the company.

From then on, a record of your Web usage is identified as yours. Most companies' privacy policies give them the right to use that record for ``improving products and services.'' Yet most companies (including Google) divulge few details about how they use that data. Nor do they give you, the person who created the data, much review or editing control over it.

It's not hard to imagine the direction of things to come, though. Imagine that the relevance of the ads, or other services offered to you, is based not just on your keywords in your searches, but also the content of your e-mail, or the knowledge of where you've been recently on the Internet, what you have done, and what you found worth your time? Google and Yahoo are already working on these services, with the goal of being able to customize more and more to the individual, or at least to demographic or behavioral clusters of similar individuals.

In fact, Google already customizes the advertising you see in its Gmail application -- based on the content of your mail. And nearly every search company now offers ``personalized search'' that integrates advertising with your own search history.

And more services, beyond advertising, are on the horizon, including further iterations of personalized search (search that knows who you are), social search (search based on your network of friends or colleagues) and much more.

All this raises some rather interesting privacy questions, ones our society has yet to fully address. American society was built on the enlightened and somewhat thrilling idea of the public's right to know. Our government is meant to operate more or less in the open. The same is true of our courts: Unless a judge determines otherwise, every divorce, murder, felony, misdemeanor and parking ticket is open to public scrutiny.

But while it's comforting to know that we, the public, have the right to review this information, it's also comforting to know we rarely do. Few of us would spend an afternoon in the basement of our county courthouse to sleuth on a colleague's divorce. Search makes probes into our private lives so much easier.

What protects our privacy is trust. We have decided that we can trust our government with the information we give it -- there are checks and balances in place, at least, and we know that the government can be held accountable in the end. At least we think that's the case.

But what of our relationship with corporations? Like it or not, most of us are now in a relationship of trust with our Internet service provider, our search engine and our e-mail provider.

Yet all companies can, for example, be compelled to deliver information about you if they are presented with a court order, and new laws like the USA Patriot Act make it easier for the government to demand your records from search companies without first informing you about that demand (and the companies, by law, cannot tell you that they have turned that information over). And the traditional checks on these powers -- disclosure and review by citizens and the press, for example -- are far more difficult.

Furthermore, most online businesses reserve the right to review your personal information if they suspect you are acting in a manner contrary to their internal policies, or if that information might help them create more profitable products or services. But do you have the right to review and edit the personal information that Google, Amazon, Yahoo or AOL has about you?

The fact is we really don't know. Earlier this year, Yahoo took a beating over the case of a Chinese journalist, Shi Tao, who used his Taiwanese Yahoo e-mail account to send information out of China that the Chinese government felt violated ``national security.'' Yahoo cooperated with the Chinese government in its investigation, turning over information about his e-mails on grounds that it had to play by the rules of the country in which it did business. Shi Tao is now in jail.

Do we trust companies (and our government) to never examine our clickstream for any purpose other than those we approve of? For now, it seems our answer is yes. After all, we garner extraordinary benefits from applications like search, e-mail, social networking and the like. But 50 years from now when search is ubiquitous and our lives are forever etched into the immortal index of the Web, will we rue that answer?

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