Big Brother is so 1984.
Today we have Google.
The all-knowing, almighty Google already has more information about me and you than all of the secret service and spy agencies of the world combined.
For starters, Google often knows what we browse and search for; who sends us emails and about what (it reads all gmail emails to sell ads); it monitors our usage of Google docs and its mapping software Google Earth so it knows when and how we travel, as well as our starting point and our final destination; maybe even our budget, income and expenses. If one combines all the gathered data in a “customer profile,” unless you are of specific interest to a particular type of government agency, it will easily be more thorough and complete than anything anyone can produce on you.
Is it true that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?
Well, it seems to me that the more powerful and successful Google becomes the less their “Don’t Be Evil” mantra seems to be a guiding principle that Google truly lives and works by. So in that sense, at least in terms of trends, Google seems to already fit the Lord Acton dictum rather well. (For more on the potential dangers see Andrew Keen‘s video The Internet is Killing Our Culture.)
In the beginning it was stories such as WiFi Gate (also known as Wi-Spy) that started raising doubts about Google’s ethics and integrity where, according to its own admission, Google “inadvertently” spied on and collected data on people’s home WiFi networks for a period of 3 years and in over 30 countries.
That resulted in on-going external and internal investigations, calls for congressional hearings, privacy lawsuits, Google offices being raided by police and entire blogs determined to take us inside Google and expose a whole spectrum of privacy and other issues, which seem in direct contradiction to the “Don’t Be Evil” mantra.
Then the Wall Street Journal reported about shouting matches between Sergey Brin and Larry Page during the discussions preceding their agonizing decision to increase the collection and usage of and even start selling some of their users’ data.
The trend then, without doubt, is one of less privacy and, arguably, more “evilness.”
Now, WIRED Magazine‘s Danger Room broke the story that Google is truly going into the intelligence gathering business in partnership with the CIA for their new start up company called Recorded Future.
In essence, Recorded Future is a company that monitors and mines data from tens of thousands of websites, blogs and social media accounts in real time in order to find patterns, events and relationships with the goal of predicting the future.
While this is not the first time that Google has been reportedly involved with the intelligence community, the timing and the character of that report will certainly not help to silence Google’s Wi-Spy critics or convince anyone of its commitment to not be evil. Furthermore, it will bring forth other issues such as conflict of interest between privacy and intelligence gathering, transparency and ethics.
See for example this relevant video from Democracy Now which raises some of the potential issues surrounding both the Wi-Spy and the Recorded Future affair.
Given all of the above, the natural question that I felt compelled to ask is:
Is Google Evil?
In the past I have often given Google as a good example of how the more value a company creates the more profit it is bound to make.(And deservedly so.) Today, I still love Google but I am afraid that the company is walking down a slippery slope and the more powerful it becomes the less true to its motto it is likely to be.
So is Google Evil?
My answer: Not yet.
But how long will that remain the case? Maybe Google should hire its own predictive analysis start up to see if based on the current data it is likely to remain true to its mantra in the near and long term future.
As for me, I think I can see the trend on my own. And, right now, I don’t like what I see.