Google is watching you
‘Big Brother’ row over plans for personal database
By Robert Verkaik, Law Editor
Published: 24 May 2007
Google, the world’s biggest search engine, is setting out to create the
most comprehensive database of personal information ever assembled, one
with the ability to tell people how to run their lives.
In a mission statement that raises the spectre of an internet Big
Brother to rival Orwellian visions of the state, Google has revealed
details of how it intends to organise and control the world’s
The company’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, said during a visit to
Britain this week: "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?’."
Speaking at a conference organised by Google, he said : "We are very
early in the total information we have within Google. The algorithms
[software] will get better and we will get better at personalisation."
Google’s declaration of intent was publicised at the same time it
emerged that the company had also invested £2m in a human genetics firm
called 23andMe. The combination of genetic and internet profiling could
prove a powerful tool in the battle for the greater understanding of
the behaviour of an online service user.
Earlier this year Google’s competitor Yahoo unveiled its own search
technology, known as Project Panama, which monitors internet visitors
to its site to build a profile of their interests.
Privacy protection campaigners are concerned that the trend towards
sophisticated internet tracking and the collating of a giant database
represents a real threat, by stealth, to civil liberties.
That concern has been reinforced by Google’s $3.1bn bid for
DoubleClick, a company that helps build a detailed picture of someone’s
behaviour by combining its records of web searches with the information
from DoubleClick’s "cookies", the software it places on users’ machines
to track which sites they visit.
The Independent has now learnt that the body representing
Europe’s data protection watchdogs has written to Google requesting
more information about its information retention policy.
The multibillion-pound search engine has already said it plans to impose a limit on the period it keeps personal information.
A spokesman for the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK agency
responsible for monitoring data legislation confirmed it had been part
of the group of organisations, known as the Article 29 Working Group,
which had written to Google.
It is understood the letter asked for more detail about Google’s
policy on the retention of data. Google says it will respond to the
Article 29 request next month when it publishes a full response on its
The Information Commissioner’s spokeswoman added: "I can’t say what
was in it only that it was written in response to Google’s announcement
that will hold information for no more than two years."
Ross Anderson, professor of Security Engineering at Cambridge
University and chairman of the Foundation for Information Policy
Research, said there was a real issue with "lock in" where Google
customers find it hard to extricate themselves from the search engine
because of the interdependent linkage with other Google services, such
as iGoogle, Gmail and YouTube. He also said internet users could no
longer effectively protect their anonymity as the data left a key
"A lot of people are upset by some of this. Why should an
angst-ridden teenager who subscribes to MySpace have their information
dragged up 30 years later when they go for a job as say editor of the
Financial Times? But there are serious privacy issues as well. Under
data protection laws, you can’t take information, that may have been
given incidentally, and use it for another purpose. The precise type
and size of this problem is yet to be determined and will change as
Google’s business changes."
A spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner said that because of
the voluntary nature of the information being targeted, the Information
Commission had no plans to take any action against the databases.
Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy Ccunsel, said the company
intended only doing w hat its customers wanted it to do. He said Mr
Schmidt was talking about products such as iGoogle, where users
volunteer to let Google use their web histories. "This is about
personalised searches, where our goal is to use information to provide
the best possible search for the user. If the user doesn’t want
information held by us, then that’s fine. We are not trying to build a
giant library of personalised information. All we are doing is trying
to make the best computer guess of what it is you are searching for."
Privacy protection experts have argued that law enforcement agents –
in certain circumstances – can compel search engines and internet
service providers to surrender information. One said: "The danger here
is that it doesn’t matter what search engines say their policy is
because it can be overridden by national laws."
How Google grew to dominate the internet
It’s all about the algorithms. When Google first started up, in
summer 1998, it quickly made its mark by being the internet’s best,
most efficient search engine. Now Google wants to know everything – all
the knowledge contained on the world wide web, and everything about you
as a computer user, too.
The key, at every step of the way, has been the methodology the
company has used to catalogue and present information. The first stroke
of genius that the company’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had
while they were still in graduate school was to measure responses to an
internet search not only by the frequency of the search word but by the
number of times a given web page was accessed via other web pages. It
was a revolutionary idea at the time, now copied by every one of their
A decade later, their technical brilliance is operating on an
altogether more ambitious scale. Google is now a $150bn (£77bn) company
and a seemingly unstoppable corporate, as well as technical juggernaut.
The big question, of course, is whether the idealism that first
fired up Page and Brin can survive in a dirty corporate world where
information is not just an intellectual ideal, but also a legal and
political hot potato involving profound issues of privacy, intellectual
property rights and freedom of speech. "You can make money without
doing evil," runs one of their most celebrated mantras. Does that
extend to signing a deal with China whereby its search functions will
be subject to state censorship? The furore over that particular
decision, made at the beginning of last year, still rages.
Google’s activities thus touch on some of the key philosophical
questions of our digital age. Because of its power and prominence, it
will also be the benchmark by which we come to measure many of the