May 24th, 2007

Should We Be Afraid Of Google’s Total Information Awareness?


Google’s PR guys must have been asleep at the switch when they let CEO Eric Schmidt make this comment:

“We are very early in the total information we have within Google. The algorithms will get better and we will get better at personalisation.”

The unfortunate reference to “total information” immediately calls to mind the ill-fated Total Information Office, which was set up by the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2002 with a mission to: “imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness”

When the program came to light, particularly the term “total information awareness,” there was, not surprisingly, a firestorm of public criticism that lead to Congress defunding the program in 2003. From Wikipedia’s write-up:

Extensive criticism of the IAO in the traditional media and on the Internet has come from both the left and the right—from civil libertarians and libertarians—who believe that massive information aggregation and analysis technologies lead to a form of dataveillance that can threaten individual liberties. To some, these developments are seen as another step down the slippery slope to a totalitarian state. Others believe that development of these technologies is inevitable and that designing systems and policies to control their use is a more effective strategy than simple opposition that has resulted in research and development projects migrating into classified programs.

Scoble rounded up a bunch of posts that all point to a growing distrust/disdain of Google, including my post from yesterday about the disruptive nature of Google’s Video PlusBox feature.

Google may be the #1 brand in the world, but it’s going to have to tread VERY carefully to avoid a fall from grace

  • I think that's the wrong question Scott,

    The question is how can we create open tools and standards to ensure their information awareness does not lock us in.

  • It's already too late for Google to avoid a fall from grace: they've followed Microsoft's 80's/90's transition from David to Goliath, though I don't think they had a choice. Given that Google's shareholders will inevitably continue to demand the company's expansion, I hope that government connects the dots between G's mountain of private data and 5-10 years of identity crimes. I'd very much like to see a change to copyright law that pulls the rug out from under businesses whose value is wholly dependent on the volume of other people's personal information they can amass.

  • Google is one privacy mistake away from falling from grace.

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