Hold my data for a while

Yesterday the Financial Times reported an interview with Eric Schmidt where he says,

“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 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?’ ”

“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.”

This is a little creepy. I think most people don’t mind their friends and relatives having such insights into their life, but for a major corporation that most of us have no personal contact with to be attempting the same thing?

Bruce Schneier recently wrote,

1984’s Big Brother was run by the state; today’s Big Brother is market driven. Data brokers like ChoicePoint and credit bureaus like Experian aren’t trying to build a police state; they’re just trying to turn a profit. Of course these companies will take advantage of a national ID; they’d be stupid not to. And the correlations, data mining and precise categorizing they can do is why the U.S. government buys commercial data from them.

I’ve noticed in talking to people about web services that there are two distinct camps on this subject. There are people who host their own email, blogs, photos, and all other data, because they don’t want other companies to have any control over its use or longevity. And there are people who happily outsource everything from email to calendars to every other kind of communication to services that will hold onto it indefinitely. There’s a real trade-off here. If I let Google have access to all of my electronic data, I can be fairly well assured that I’ll have long-term access to it as well. Also, the more places have pieces of my data, the better chance I have of reassembling things in the case of a failure in the primary repository (as many people with corrupted databases or deleted blog posts have discovered, Google Reader and Livejournal syndication can be a godsend).

At least in the US, we have very few laws that restrict how long much of this data can be stored, and how it can be used. Obviously, no commercial service wants access to all this potential information if they can’t make money doing so. And increasingly, that means analyzing everything you buy and do with the intent of targeting commercial services more accurately.

Yet it’s hard for me to get worked up about this issue. No, I don’t want the government or anyone else using this to restrict what I can or can’t do, look for illegal behavior before it starts (think of all the false positives), or in any other way invade my life. But Google telling me what I think or want? Surely I’m smart enough to ignore this and continue to have my own mind. I don’t buy books just because Amazon says I’ll like them. On the other hand, maybe it’s better if these data stores expire after a while. If I want to hold onto my own email for 20 years, that’s one thing. But it doesn’t seem appropriate to allow this sort of analytic targeting to use data so old we don’t remember it ourselves. People change.

Some final thoughts from Schneier:

Of course, Orwell’s Big Brother had a ruthless efficiency that’s hard to imagine in a government today. But that completely misses the point. A sloppy and inefficient police state is no reason to cheer; watch the movie Brazil and see how scary it can be. You can also see hints of what it might look like in our completely dysfunctional “no-fly” list and useless projects to secretly categorize people according to potential terrorist risk. Police states are inherently inefficient. There’s no reason to assume today’s will be any more effective.

The fear isn’t an Orwellian government deliberately creating the ultimate totalitarian state, although with the U.S.’s programs of phone-record surveillance, illegal wiretapping, massive data mining, a national ID card no one wants and Patriot Act abuses, one can make that case. It’s that we’re doing it ourselves, as a natural byproduct of the information society.We’re building the computer infrastructure that makes it easy for governments, corporations, criminal organizations and even teenage hackers to record everything we do, and — yes — even change our votes. And we will continue to do so unless we pass laws regulating the creation, use, protection, resale and disposal of personal data. It’s precisely the attitude that trivializes the problem that creates it.

[Link to interview via Shelley Powers.]

3 responses to “Hold my data for a while

  1. Asking Google what job to take doesn’t bug me. It’s when people start asking it who to vote for that I’ll get nervous.

  2. When there exists an AI smarter than me, I will do what it tells me to.

    I also have practically no interest in privacy.

  3. Someone submitted this over at http://www.theportlander.com . I am glad they did as google spreads its power more and more it will be interesting to see where they go evil or good.