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Google wants to really get to know you

Which database would you like to be stored on?

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Google wants to know what you are thinking. Erik Schmidt has, after a couple of quiet years, started talking again about his ambitions for the firm to be able to answer questions like "What shall I do tomorrow?", or "What job shall I take?"

Since most people don't know what they are thinking from moment to moment, we have to admire the scale of the company's ambition. But it makes us nervous, not least because it sounds an awful lot like "Where do you want to go today?" and we all know who was doing the asking then, right?

More seriously, Schmidt's stated ambition to collect as much personal data as possible on its users does prompt questions. Not just about the scale of the technical challenge the firm is undertaking, and the implications for the privacy of everyone on the net, if it works out how to achieve its aims.

According to the Financial Times, Schmidt said: "We are very early in the total information we have within Google. The algorithms will get better and we will get better at personalisation...We cannot even answer the most basic questions because we don't know enough about you. That is the most important aspect of Google's expansion."

From a business perspective, the quality of the recommendations it makes must be high enough that users are willing to sign up to allow their data to be mined and used to generate the adverts. Otherwise, people will opt out in droves.

From a privacy perspective, the fact that all the major search engines are competing to find out exactly who we all are, what we are thinking, and when we will be thinking it, is at the very least worth mentioning. Even if you don't find it outright troubling when the company's various ad-serving acquisitions are added to the mix.

Yes, there are already laws to restrict how our personal data is used, and yes, many of the services we are talking about will be opt in, rather than forced upon us.

But existing laws were not designed to deal with such large scale commercial information collection, and so the restrictions that are in place may not be adequate to protect an individual's privacy in either the online or offline world. And we can only really opt in to something if we know exactly what it is we are signing up for: how many people can say, honestly, that they read the Ts&Cs before ticking "I accept"?

Writing for the FT, Thomas Hazlett, professor of law and economics at George Mason University, says: "The rude awakening for many is that they supposed that [Google] was a different kind of company and that the markets it opened were upside down from others. They are finding that privacy, like other goods, has trade-offs, and that even the purest of souls must make hard choices." ®

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