August 28, 2006

The Guardian On AOL Search Data [9:34 am]

From the UK, where surveillance is at once more common and more worrisome (or more worried about in public, at least) than here: They know all about you - pdf

In March this year, a man with a passion for Portuguese football, living in a city in Florida, was drinking heavily because his wife was having an affair. He typed his troubles into the search window of his computer. “My wife doesnt love animore,” he told the machine. He searched for “Stop your divorce” and “I want revenge to my wife” before turning to self-examination with “alchool withdrawl”, “alchool withdrawl sintoms” (at 10 in the morning) and “disfunctional erection”. On April 1 he was looking for a local medium who could “predict my futur”.

But what could a psychic guess about him compared with what the world now knows? This story is one of hundreds, perhaps tens of thousands, revealed this month when AOL published the details of 23m searches made by 650,000 of its customers during a three-month period earlier in the year. The searches were actually carried out by Google - from which AOL buys in its search functions.

[...] All of this information is stored. Google identifies every computer that connects to it with an implant (known as a cookie) which will not expire until 2038. If you also use Gmail, Google knows your email address - and, of course, keeps all your email searchable. If you sign up to have Google ads on a website, then the company knows your bank account details and home address, as well as all your searches. If you have a blog on the free blogger service, Google owns that. The company also knows, of course, the routes you have looked up on Google maps. Yahoo operates a similar range of services.

All this knowledge has been handed over quite freely by us as users. It is the foundation of Google’s fortune because it allows the company to target very precisely the advertising it sends in our direction. Other companies have equally ambitious plans: an application lodged on August 10 with the US Patent & Trademark Office showed that Amazon is hoping to patent ways of interrogating a database that would record not just what its 59 million customers have bought - which it already knows - or what they would like to buy (which, with their wish lists, they tell the world) but their income, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity. The company, of course, already knows who we are and where we live.

[...] This is knowledge beyond the dreams of any secret police in history. Earlier this year Google fought a lawsuit to keep a week’s worth of random search data out of the hands of the US government, but other search companies have handed over their data without complaint and nobody has yet discovered what deals have been struck between search engines and the Chinese government. China is generally thought of as attempting to censor the internet, which it does; search engines that do business in China must censor their own results if they are to succeed. But the real power for a totalitarian government is no longer just censorship. It is to allow its citizens to search for anything they want - and then remember it.

No western government, so far as we know, has gone that far. But if one ever does, it will know where the information is kept that will tell it almost everything about almost everyone. This morning, as I logged in to Googletalk, to chat with my sister, the programme silently upgraded itself. “Would you like to show friends what music you’re playing now?” it asked.

Some recent Furdlog postings here

See also Technology lets ads get personal

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