Friday, 17 April 2009

Google knows what you're up to

“LOOK, look, that bloke on the bike – I’ve got an anorak that colour, and a saddlebag like that – do you think it’s me?”
Well yes, Mark, it might be.
“And look, that’s my house. And there’s my neighbour’s car. And there’s my broken bit of drainpipe. But I fixed that ages ago, so they must have taken the picture last summer.”
Well yes, that’ll be why the trees are all in leaf and the chestnuts in blossom. And frankly, I don’t care much, beyond the mild interest of seeing what sort of street you live in.
This was a genuine conversation – one of a few like that I’ve already witnessed or taken part in. I reckon there must have been many thousands of them taking place in offices all up and down the land these past few weeks.
Even in places such as Ipswich, where the camera cars have been seen but the pics aren’t up yet, the chatrooms and messageboards have been full of it. Google must be delighted with their investment.
For now. How long, I wonder, before the novelty of Street View wears off?
Google Maps are great. The ability to hover over satellite pictures of almost anywhere on Earth, with identifying labels if you want, is fun and can be useful.
Finding somewhere on a map, then zooming in on a single street, a single house, in photo view, has helped me a few times to find my way.
And there are some brilliant surprises. Like being able to peer down, in remarkable detail, on the eerily deserted streets and buildings of Chernobyl.
Or getting a close view of the so-called Boneyard in Tucson, Arizona, where more than 4,000 out-of-service US military aircraft are mothballed in case they’re ever needed again. Close enough to clearly identify each plane.
Not that there is any spying potential in this. The online photos are not exactly a live view. The Tucson golf course where Aussie Geoff Ogilvy won the recent World Matchplay title still appears as a patch of desert scrub.
And I’m not sure there’s really much spying potential, either, in the new generation, Street View.
A bit of mild passing fun, perhaps, in spotting yourself on your bike. And maybe a tiny embarrassment potential for the cheating wife or husband caught where they shouldn’t be.
But, realistically, your chances of being spotted “in the flesh” are vastly greater than any risk of being caught months later when Google gets its snaps online.
No, I wouldn’t worry too much – or get too excited – about down-your-street Googling. Its very openness prevents it being much danger to anyone.
I’m much more concerned about the CCTV cameras that track our every move in real time – without us ever getting to see what they see.
And, incidentally, the rights of ordinary folk like me who are apt to be hounded by security guards, or even the police, if we merely turn up on the street with a camera.
But technology does pose very serious risks to our liberty and privacy.
The government’s hare-brained ID cards scheme; its bid to copy all our emails; its computerised tracking of car registration-plates via “safety” cameras; its burgeoning databases of everything from our tax records to our DNA. It all adds up to an array of state snooping the Soviets could only dream of.
And then there’s Google. Once just a nifty search engine, it’s now bigger than most governments. And potentially even better informed.
Most of us make use of some of its services. So it can tell what web pages we look at, how often and for how long.
It can tell what we buy – what books and records we like, what services we subscribe to. All, of course, in the aim of targeting you with the right advertising. Which you may regard as a good thing, at least in part.
But you can tell quite a bit about someone’s political views, for example, from knowing the books they read. They might know, if they care to look, that I recently re-read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
And then if you use Google as your diary… your roaming email service… to post your private thoughts in a blog… to store your family photos, maybe your private documents…
It can now even track your movements – or at least the movements of your mobile phone. If you want it to. Or, perhaps, if government or security services want it to?
That may not happen now. But it can, so it will.
And of course Google now knows what maps you look at, which streets you choose to take a virtual walk down.
OK, Google “takes your security seriously”. It should. Its whole enormous business depends on being trusted.
And let’s face it, we love it. But can we guarantee it will always deserve our love?
Because all that information could add up to an awful lot of power for whoever gets their hands on it.
And remember – Winston Smith ended up loving Big Brother.

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