Google Drive…to get your stuff.

I’ve always had the attitude that any company that has to remind it’s staff to ‘Do No Evil’ is either employing the wrong sort of people or is trying hard to hide the fact that they might not be paragons of virtue.

This week my increasingly hardcore anti-Google attitude was turned up another notch by the Terms and Conditions on their new ‘Google Drive’ product. Google Drive is Google’s answer to products like ‘Dropbox’ – look at it as an online hard disc that you can use for storing copies of your files, swapping files with other people, etc.  In teh Terms and Conditions, Google rightly state that they respect your intellectual property rights, and that the rights to the data you upload stay with you.  So far, so good.  They also then say:

 “When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide licence to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes that we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”

Whoa, dude!  From this it would appear that by uploading your stuff to the Googleplex, you’re providing them with source material for anything they wish to derive from the stuff you commit.  Sort of like Facebook, but without poking…  And Microsoft have a simnilar clause in their equivalent online Cloud storage service T&Cs.

The difference is that Microsoft and Facebook get ‘pulled’ fairly regularly for abuse of privacy, attitudes towards standard, Intellectual Property and Patent enforcement, what have you.  But Google still seem to be the Teflon boys of the modern IT landscape.  I have to say that I now regard Google as a bigger threat to my privacy and to the general health of the information landscape than Facebook or Microsoft.  Why?

Google own increasingly large amounts of the search landscape; like ‘Hoover’ they are a brand that has become a verb.  People tend to Google rather than Search the Internet; businesses have been known to fail when Google modify their search algorithms. The data that we pass through Google – even when we’re not logged in – can still be logged against our IP address and passed on to the US Government (as well as being used within Google itself for various purposes). Despite this I still use Google – because there is not yet an equivalent that is as good.  Microsoft Bing is getting there, but has a way to go, and I guess that that is how many people who are uncomfortable about Google but still use them feel.

There’s an old saying saying along the lines of ‘If you’re not paying for the service, you’re being sold.’  Maybe it’s time for the unthinkable – a paid for search provider. I’d be very tempted to pay for a good search service that was curated enough to remove the crap, whilst not threatening my privacy or intellectual property.  A new frontier for entrepreneurs?


If it ain’t on your machine, it ain’t yours.

Yesterday I found out that Yahoo had pulled the plug on the Delicious application, amongst a few other APIs and services.  There will no doubt now be a spate of articles about how to move your content from these applications to somewhere else, and it may be that new services spring up out of the Internet eco-system to fill the gap.  But hopefully the users of these systems will have learnt a valuable lesson:

If it ain’t on your machine, you cannot rely on it being there.

This isn’t rocket science for those of us who cut our computing teeth in a pre-Cloud, pre-WWW world, but it was pointed out to me the other day that there are now large numbers of children and teenagers who have never lived in a world without the WWW.  Scary.

A couple of years ago a Forum that I was an occasional contributor to shut up shop in a sudden and pretty final manner – the owner simply closed the shutters with little warning.  For me this was vaguely annoying but no biggie, but for other users of the Forum who’d committed some pretty large articles and intellectually robust commentary over a period of time, it was almost the equivalent of Edmund Blackadder having his novel burnt by Baldrick.  Of course, the site owner was perfectly within his rights to do this – free forum and all that.  But the general feeling was that a form of social contract had been broken.  However, one could easily say that the authors had not taken backups of their content…

I mothballed a forum myself a year or so back – it’s still online, all content there, but posting has been disabled.  I have to say that in these times of almost limitless server space and cheap hosting it almost seemed churlish to pull the work of others. 

But there may well be a point at which I let the domain go or re-use it for something else.  It’s perfectly within my rights to do so, and that content will then exist only as a zipped up backup on a DVD somewhere, and anyone who posted anything there, who wants it back and didn’t take a copy will have to whistle.

And there is the issue; the ‘universal availability’ offered by browser based applications, the Web and the Cloud means that many people no longer own their own data, in anything but an intellectual property sense.  They don’t know where it is stored, they don’t know who gets to look at it, search it or mine it.  They don’t know how often it’s backed up, and have an assumption that ‘smeone’ will be taking care of it.  The increasing focus of Operating Systems on hiving off document and data storage to servers ‘out there’ in the Cloud or on the Internet (like Google’s new Chrome OS) is regarded as a great positive for those involved in Internet service related businesses – after all, it could well be the next big thing in what you can be charged for – always something folks like. 🙂

There is something rather neat, in my opinion, about having your data on your hardware, under your control.  Yes, it’s your responsibility, but we need to start regarding personal or household data in the same way previous generations have looked after old letters and photographs.  If you need to work on stuff whilst away, then why not just put the files in question on USB sticks?

And finally, data ‘out there’ is under the legislation and jurisdiction of whatever country the servers lie in.  You might want to look at things like the US PATRIOT act before saving your data anywhere that crosses US jurisdiction.  Whilst you might not think you’re a terrorist or a troublemaker, the definitions these days are flexible.

Ultimately, there is something rather reassuring about having your data at home, under your roof, where the only way it can be seized or searched is when the stormtroopers kick the door in.

Google’s ‘mistake’ maps all UK WiFi networks…

Some weeks ago, a story broke about Google recording data about WiFi networks when they were wandering around taking family snapshots with their now infamous fleet of ‘Streetview’ cars.  At the time, Google claimed that the information gathered was ‘accidental’ – that rang a few bells with quite a few techies.  It’s alike me wandering the streets of Sheffield taking photographs and at the same time ‘accidentally’ running war dialling software so that I can log any WiFi activity in the area.  There’s no ‘accidental’ link between digital imaging and WiFi networks, so what the heck were Google up to?

I intended to blog at the time, but life decided to intervene and so I didn’t do the post…which is a shame because of what’s reported here.  Google have mapped every WiFi network that was detectable on the routes taken by their StreetView cars.  In other words, if your house or office was photographed by Google, they also grabbed bits of data about your WiFi network, if you have one – MAC address, SSID, Channel in use.  OK, it may seem that this is pretty much ‘small fry’ in terms of data and privacy, but let’s just take a wider look.

  • First of all, Google have breached Data Protection Legislation in virtually every country in which they’ve done this; you’re not supposed to gather information up willy-nilly in this manner.
  • Secondly, Google have shows the same sort of respect (or lack of same) for privacy that Facebook have been accused of.  In fact, I’d argue that Google’s crimes against privacy are probably worse than Facebook.  With Facebook I had a choice to use their site to share my data.  Google just whizz along, photograph my property and grab my data whether I like it or not.
  • Gathering and storing this data isn’t a by-product of any photographic process; the equipment and process to record and store this data must have been installed deliberatley in the Google Streetview vehicles.  Now, no-one does this sort of thing for laughs – so we have to assume that Google carried out an action that cost money, was against Data protection legislation and that they might have suspected would upset people for a particular reason.
  • And they actually patented the techniques / technology used.  The last one’s a bit of a give away….

What could that reason be?

That, my friends, is the 64 dollar question.  Google have ended up with the most comprehensive map of WiFi coverage in the UK that’s ever been compiled.  Now, much of that capacity isn’t publicly accessible – i.e. it belongs to folks like me and thee – but it did start me thinking about what a gung-ho, conquer the universe by next Thursday company like Google might do.

What about….

  1. Gathering data on the different types of router / network in use in domestic and business environments to sell to marketing companies working for hardware manufacturers?
  2. Spotting ‘dark areas’ in towns where there is no public WiFi – where Google could fill a need, perhaps?
  3. Gathering information as to WiFi networks in towns that Google might approach to sell advertising to?
  4. Testing their technology – a dry run to see what they could get, the attitude of the relavant authorities, etc.?
  5. Testing the possibilities for WiFi network usage by vehicles?
  6. Checking WiFi security settings on the behalf of ‘other oragnisations’ to see how much effort someone would need to carry out a comprehensive mobile monitoring exercise for WiFi?  A little like the TV Detector vans?

Anyone else got any bright ideas?

Social Search…waste of time?

I’m a big user of search engines.  Despite my grumblings and pontifications on here about Google, I still use them the most because they’re still the best out there.  I hope that Bing – despite the daft name – will one day come to challenge Google, but until then, I just Google.  It’s been interesting recently to see Tweets start appearing in search results, and I’ve commented in this blog on the topic.  The most recent work being done by Google that they feel will improve the search experience for us all is explored in this piece from the BBC, and I’m particularly interested in the comments made about ‘Social Search’.

First of all, what is Social Search? 

My definition of a true Social Search tool is one that would give weight to a number of different aspects when searching.  These would include:

  • The normal search criteria as entered in to any search engine that you care to use.
  • Your location, intelligently applied to any searches that might be expected to have a geographical aspect to them.
  • A weighting applied to favour the results based upon material that meets the criteria you’re searching on that may have been placed on the Internet by people or organisations within your personal or professional network.

To give an example – you do a search for restaurants.  The search engine makes a guess about your location based on previous searches, geocoding based on your IP address or, coming real soon, tagging provided with the search request specifying your location based on a GPS in the device that you’re using for the search.  The search engine then determines whether your ‘friends’ have done similar searches, whether they’ve done any reviews or blog posts about restaurants in the area, posted photos to Flickr, or are actually Tweeting FROM a restaurant as you search, whatever.  The results are then returned for you – and ideally would be tailored to your particular situation as understood by the search engine.

And this is roughly what the Google Social Search folks are looking at.

“….returns information posted by friends such as photos, blog posts and status updates on social networking sites.

It is currently only available in the US and will be coming to the rest of the world soon.

Maureen Heymans, technical lead at Google, said this kind of search means the information offered is personal to the user.

“When I’m looking for a restaurant, I’ll probably find a bunch of reviews from experts and it’s really useful information.

“But getting a review from a friend can be even better because I trust them and I know their tastes. Also I can contact them and ask for more information,” she said.

In future users’ social circles could provide them with the answers they seek, as long as individuals are prepared to make those connections public.”

Of course, the million (or multi-billion) dollar question is how far are people to go in terms of making their networks available to search engine companies in such a way that results can be cross referenced in this way.  Once upon a time I’d have said that folks wouldn’t, as they value their privacy, but today I’m not so sure.  Given that we have seen sites where people share details about credit card purchases, I’m not convinced that people value their privacy enough to not allow this sort of application to take off, at least amongst the ‘digital elites’.

Of course, hopefully it will be up to us whether we participate in using Social Search – I guess all of us who blog or Tweet will find our musings being used as ‘search fodder’ unless we opt out of making our contributions searchable.  Will I use Social Search?  If it’s at all possible to opt out, No.  And here’s why.

Because I doubt the results will be as relevant to me as Google and all the other potential providers of SOcial Search think they will be.  Let’s face it – these companies will not be doing it for nothing – some where along the way the ‘database of intentions’ will be being supplemented and modified based upon the searches carried out, and such information is a goldmine to marketers and advertisers.

But the relevance to me?  I’m yet to be convinced – and here’s why.

If I really want the opinions of my friends, family and occasional business contacts on what I eat, wear, watch or listen to then I’ll ask them directly.  Just because I know someone doesn’t mean that I share any similarity in viewpoint or preferences at all.  I have friends with very different interests – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Agnostics  and Atheists, people from the political left and right, party animals and stay at homes…the differentiation goes on.  This is because I pick my friends based on what they’re like as people – not necessarily because they share interests or beliefs.  As it happens, I’m occasionally quietly offended by what some of my online friends say – but that’s life.  We don’t always have to agree or share the same beliefs.  

Therefore, the idea of biasing my search results based on what people I know search for, prefer or comment on is potentially useless.  If I wish to know what my friends think or say – I’ll talk to them, email them or read their tweets / blogs / whatever directly. 

I feel there’s also a serious risk of ‘crystalisation’ of beliefs – a sort of friendship groupthink emerging.  Think of what it was like when you were 13 years old and spotty.  For many teenagers it matters to be ‘in with the in-crowd’; Social Search could contribute to the return of that sort of belief structure amongst peer groups.  By it’s nature, the people who will be ‘opinion leaders’ in your Social Search universe will be those friends who are most online and who share the most.  Their activities will hence bias the results returned in Social Search.  It might not be such a problem for them, though – people who have a high Social Search presence will undoubtedly come to the attention of advertisers and opinion formers who might wish to make use of that ‘reputation’.

One of the great advantages of good, old-fashioned, non-social search is taht you will occasionally be bowled a googly (pitched a curve ball for my transatlantic friends!) that might lead you off in to whole new areas of knowledge.  You may be prompted to try something new that NONE of your friends or colleagues have heard of.  Whilst these results will still be in the results, if they’re on the second page, how many of us will bother going there?  We’ll become fat and lazy and contented searchers.

So….I think I want to stay as an individual.  For now, I’ll happily turn my back on Social Search!

Facebook would like you to share even more….

There’s an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ in which Lisa sets out to determine whether a hamster or Bart is the more intelligent for a school science project.  She does this by applying electric shocks to the ‘subjects’ when they attempt to feed.  the hamster soon stops trying to eat the nuts that are attached to teh electrical wiring, while Bart just keeps on getting electric shocks whenever he tries to eat a slice of booby-trapped cake.

And so it seems with Facebook and privacy issues; no sooner than they navigate their way through one privacy crisis, then they end up with another problem of their own construction –this time involving a new plan to allow ‘trusted third party partners’ access to information about your Facebook account.  At the moment, when you go off to a site – like a game – that connects to Facebook via the ‘Facebook Connect’ application, you’re asked if you wish to give the site permission to access data from your Facebook account that the site needs to work.  This is usually the point at which I say ‘No’ and close the brwoser window, I should add.  The new arrangement will be that certain sites will be given special dispensation to bypass this process and use your Facebook ‘cookie’ on your PC to identify your Facebook account, then go off to Facebook and grab details about friends, etc. without you ever agreeing to it.

Of course, there will be the option available for us to Opt Out of this rather high-handed approach, and by reducing the amount of information that you make available in your profile with a privacy setting of ‘Everyone’ you’ll be able to restrict what data is presented anyway.  But it does appear that this, combined with the recent changes to default privacy settings that made ‘Everyone’ the standard (unless you change it), are pointing to an increasing interest form Facebook in working out ways of :

  1. Using your facebook login and data as a ‘passport’ on to other affiliated sites.
  2. Increasing the ‘stickiness’ of Facebook – not necessarily by keeping you on the Facebook site but by keeping information about your social activities with other Facebook users going back to the Facebook site.
  3. Increasing the ‘reach’ of Facebook accounts to make them more valuable for monetising.

It’s inevitable that Facebook will want to start making some real money from the vast amounts of personal data acquired on their users; if they increase the number of ‘selected partners’ significantly then the amount of data that can be collected about behaviours of Facebook users will be vastly increased – perhaps it’s time to start remembering that you are soon going to be paying for Farmville and other such activities one way or another; it may not be a subscription, but your personal data might start showing up in all sorts of places.

Facebook user hypocrisy or common sense?

I came across this article in my Twitstream today about how young professionals are changing their name and doing other things to camoflage their presence on Facebook and other social networking sites in order to cover their tracks from potential employers or head hunters who might find some aspects of their personalities or character less employable than might be desired.

For a while now there has been a suggestion that people should run separate Facebook accounts for their ‘private’ life and their ‘professional’ life, and make sure that all the partying, socialising, membership of bizarre societies, etc. ends up in the ‘private’ account with the privacy restrictions applied to restrict access to friends only, and ideally with a suitable disguised name.  The suggestions made in the article above have included people setting up accounts under their middle names for one account, for example.

At first glance it seems to be a rather sensible idea; but recently I’ve started wondering whether the establishment of public and private personas in this way is not so much common sense as hypocrisy or even dishonesty.  Let me elaborate…

Many years ago – in the days before Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, what have you, the general rule of thumb was to believe that anything you posted on the Internet would most likely come back to haunt you at some point.  this is more the case today.  My personal way of looking at this is to imagine anything you post on a public forum, blog, Facebook or Twitter being read out to your mother, bank manager, boss and spiritual leader on a busy afternoon in the middle of the local High Street. 🙂 

So at first glance it might make sense to get all the less reputable stuff tucked away somewhere safe….

But hang on a minute – it’s still you!  If your politics, religion or sexuality is such that you fear that they may put potential employers off of recruiting you, then perhaps you need to think about whether you would really want to work for such a company, and whether you would be happy there.  Getting recruited in to an organisation where you have already hidden some core aspects of your personality is not the best start to a working relationship; let’s face it, it will turn up at some point in your career!  And if it’s some aspect of your behaviour, then again – it’s still you.  We all have occasions when we get a little worse for wear on drink, and get photographed in that state, and we all make the occasional ‘off colour’ jokes.  As soon as you start hiding these things away from people who’re wanting to employ you then you’re basically selling a false personality to your recruiters – again, dishonest.  And if you’re dumb enough to post up details of serious indiscretions – drugs use, minor crime, etc. – then to be honest you’re an idiot who deserves what you get.

Of course, it’s not always that easy; some employers are so ‘straight up’ that any deviation from the straight and narrow is regarded as evidence of gross moral turpitude.  And you can’t always determine what photographs your friends take and display – I’ve spoken about this elsewhere on this blog – but then again, there is the old saying about ‘A man is judged by the company he keeps.’

My own advice, for what it’s worth?  Don’t bother having dual Facebook accounts; just stick with the one, set up good privacy settings and be civilised with what you post to it.  Anything else is hypocrisy.

Facebook and the panic button….

Since the recent case in which a teenage girl was groomed and murdered by a paedophile via the Facebook site, there has been a lot of pressure from the UK Government for Facebook to put a ‘Panic Button’ style link on the site – a move supported by the CEOP organisationFacebook have commented that they have no objection in principle to making it easier to report abuse on the site, but that they feel that the CEOP supported option is not necessarily the best way.

Facebook are far from perfect in the way that they treat their users; I think all of us who use the site would have our own grumbles about privacy and the attitude of Facebook as a whole towards individual users now that they’ve got big.  But to be honest I think I would rather central Government stayed out of issues like this – especially New Labour, who seem to have spent the last decade dismantling our civil liberties bit by bit.  For a previous broader comment on this issue, I direct you to this item from a year ago, in which author Phillip Pullman commented on the behaviour of New Labour.

Since then we’ve had the Digital Economy Bill – even without the Lib Dem Peers’ Amendments it was a pretty poor piece of legislation.  With the amendments it offers a wonderful means of stifling debate by simply shutting down access to any site that breaches copyright.  Under the Bill, as it stands, and if it were strictly applied, YouTube could be blocked to UK ISPs because of material that breaches copyright. 

Part of the problem with New Labour is their amazing ability to put together piss-poor legislation on a ‘knee jerk’ basis.  A lone gun nut leads to a total handgun ban – which doesn’t affect criminals as they tend to disobey the law anyway.   Despite massive increases in the legislation aimed at child protection, the very basic laws that were there all along fail to be implemented and children keep getting killed.  And there are many more examples.  One interpretation of this repeated series of cock-ups is that they’re just incompetent; my own interpretation is that New Labour are just incredibly keen on reducing our civil liberties as much as they can to have a nicely compliant and obedient citizenry.

The issue for me here is not just the Facebook reporting mechanism; I’m afraid I regard that as something of a ‘thin end of the wedge’, by which Government could influence and impact the policies of web sites not even based in Britain.  It’s not far from that sort of thing to the  censorship policies adopted by China and, more recently, but to a lesser degree, Australia.  Protesting about this sort of Government activity, which initially starts with child protection, is a little bit like trying to answer the question ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ in a way that doesn’t make you guilty.  But given this Governments record on civil liberties I’m afraid I do not and cannot trust them. 

As  Rousseau said “Free people, remember this maxim: we may acquire liberty, but it is never recovered if it is once lost.

And we’re losing it bit by bit.

It’s for our own good….

And I’m sure that Twitter will not be doing anything else – at least not yet – with their code when they’re making the Twittersphere safe for us all to Tweet in by screening links.  The logic of the Twitter people is sound; by vetting links they can reduce or totally remove the number of phishing and malware links that are made available to Twitter users.  They’re effectively developing a Twitter ‘Killbot’. One thing that has become clearer over recent years with the explosion of Social Network sites like Twitter and Facebook is that no matter what you say to people, and how often you say it, folks will still click links from total strangers and get themselves in to trouble.  Despite warnings, they’ll hand over user names and passwords because they’re asked for them.  And even savvy Net users are occasionally caught out by well crafted ‘targetted’ phishing scams.

 So checking and validating links – including those in DMs – is at first glance a good idea.  It only takes a few people replying to spam or filling in details on phishing sites to keep the problem going, and as education seems to be woefully inadequate at changing people’s behaviour on these issues; let’s face it, after nearly 20 years of widespread Internet use by the general public, the message about not replying to spam and not buying from spammers  has still not penetrated a good many thick skulls.

However – and it’s a big however – the technology that stops dodgy links can also be used to stop any Tweets, simply by tweaking the code.  There is a line that is crossed when you start using automated filtration techniques on any online platform.  It’s obvious that on fast growing, fast moving systems like Twitter it’s going to be impossible to have human beings realistically monitoring traffic for malware of any sort, and it’s inevitable that some form of automated techniques will be in use.  But once that line’s crossed, it’s important that we don’t forget that the technology that stops these links can also be used to stop anything else that ‘the Creators’ don’t wish to be on the system.

A wee while ago I wrote this item, in which I suggested that so much of the responsibility for ongoing phishing attacks on Twitter falls on folks who’re clicking those links; whilst spammers and phishers get bites, they carry on trying.  So, if you ARE still falling for these phishing scams – get wise and learn how to spot them!

One final observation – the code that can spot a malware link can also spot keywords.  And when you can spot keywords you can start targeting adverts.  And combined with Twitters newly activated Geolocation service, we might soon see how Twitter expects to make money from location and content targeted advertising.

Google Buzz and Google’s incursion in to Social Networking

GoogleMany years ago there was a joke in techy circles that likened Microsoft to the Star Trek aliens ‘The Borg’.  It appeared at the time (mid 1990s) that Microosft were indeed determined to assimilate everything they encountered and absorb the technology of other companies in to their own.  Well, like the Borg in Trek, Microsoft finally found that they couldn’t assimilate everything.  But today there’s a new Borg Queen on the block, in teh form of Google.

Google Buzz was launched as an adjunct to Gmail, and Google got themselves in to hot water at the launch by having the system automatically follow everyone in your Gmail contacts list.  This was regarded as pretty heavy handed on Google’s part – and Google obviously concurred to some degree as they introduced changes to this part of the system.  The problem for Google is that they have a lousy history of handling privacy issues in both their Search tools and Gmail, and I guess starting a new product off with a similar disregard for the perceptions of their users was not a sound move.

So, how relevant is this move by Google?  I have to say that I’m not convinced that Google will actually represent major competition to Facebook or Twitter with Buzz (or, for that matter, with Wave).  The lock in to Google’s infrastructure of Buzz is something that Facebook doesn’t have, for instance.  I don’t have to have a Facebook email account, and I don’t do my searching through Facebook.  And therein lies the problem for me – and it all comes back to Google’s database of intentions that I’ve mentioned before in this blog.  The more Google can derive about the way in which people use Search, who they interact with, what ‘clusters’ of interests people have – even anonymously – the more value Google’s database of intention is.  You might want to take a look at some of my previous articles about Google – Google and The Dead Past, The importance of Real Time Search and Google seeks browser dominance – to get a feel for my views on Google.   Google’s strategic moves have been consistently to get Google’s search into everything we do.  Gmail was their first crack at this with personal communications, and now with Wave and Buzz they have the tools to map social networks, and the search behaviours of people on those social networks, especially if people remain logged in to Google accounts whilst the do their searching.

Let’s pretend… are logged in to your Buzz account and you search for something.  Google can link your search interests to those of the people in your social network, and vice versa.  They can thus add the collective behaviour of your searches to their database of intentions – remember what I said about the Borg? 🙂  And we’re not even thinking about the additional data provided by Google Apps…

 Google are also purchasing a ‘Social Search’ tool that allows people to ask questions of their social groups; I think we can safely assume that the responses will be squirreled away somewhere for future use.

Even when anonymised, this sort of information builds in to a very valuable commodity that Google can sell to future ‘partners’.  Google’s behaviour at the moment seems to be to develop or acquire a series of discrete elements of Social Networking technology that they’re bringing together under the existing account system of Gmail / Google Accounts, which makes perfect sense.  At one time Microsoft filled in some of the gaps in their various offerings in a similar way to allow them access to market segments that they were still trying to penetrate.  Perhaps Google have learnt from the software behemoth.

But they have a way to go – here are what I consider Google’s biggest challenges.

  1. The attitude of the public towards Google is not entirely positive, and whilst Facebook have had numerous privacy problems their defined market presence in Social Networking and not in Social Networking, Search, Email, Productivity tools, kitchen sink manufacture, etc.  
  2. Facebook may easily lose market share to a good competing service; their constant re-vamping of User Interface and buggy code upsets users but at the moment there is no viable competation for most people as Facebook is where their social network is.  Google would have to get people to migrate en-masse and over a short period of time to get the sort of success FB show.
  3. Wave is certainly buggy; Gmail and Buzz are designed to not run on IE6 and it’s debatable how long Google will support other Microsoft Browsers – I wonder how many people would want themselves tied in to Google at the level of software as well as applications?  Like I said earlier – Facebook doesn’t require me to have a Facebook email address.
  4. What’s Google’s target market; Wave seemed to be a solution looking for a problem; Buzz seems to be a similar ‘half way house’ affair that in some ways would have been best placed in Wave. Twitter and Facebook tend to provide specific groups of users with a defined user experience and functionality.  Quite what Buzz and Wave and Gmail together provide that isn’t available elsewhere is not clear to me.

So….my thoughts?  If this is Google’s attempt to park their tanks on Facebook’s lawn, then they’ve invoked the ‘Fail Whale’.

We know where you’ve been on the Net, and we don’t need no steenkin’ cookies!

searchglassI’m not overly paranoid about people knowing where I’ve been on the Internet; I’m aware that it’s pretty easy for a website to feed your browser ‘tracking cookies’ that can be used for marketing and advertising purposes, and these can then be picked up on other sites, thus providing a path of footsteps that you have followed online.

Which is why I clear my cookies regularly, and set my browsers to only accept cookies from sites that I want to accept cookies from.  But I can see that in some parts of the world, your browsing history might be of great interest to Government and Law Enforcement, and I’m sure that many of the larger online retailers would love to get their paws on a good, reliable and hard to circumvent method of looking at what common interests people have.  For example, even if you’re anonymous, it can be of great use to companies to know what sorts of sites you visit, because you can then use data mining techniques to derive information on what other sites or products you might be interested in.  For example, if you’re an Amazon user, you’ll be aware of the fact you get recommendations of the ‘We see you’re interested in x.  Other people interested in x also bought y and z’. 

Now…let’s take this a little further.  I was browsing around the other afternoon and came across this site.  Give it a try – it’s under the auspices of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  I don’t know what it came back with for you, but my ‘fingerprint’ was pretty darn rare – I guess it’s inevitable because of the various things I have installed on this  computer for work.  The site looks at the information sent by your browser to the site, and uses it to derive a ‘uniqueness’ factor – a sort of tag.  For an out of the box installation of an Operating System then I’d expect that there would be quite a few people whose finger prints are essentially the same.  But the more you tweak and configure and install stuff on your PC, the more unique it gets….to a point at which it can identify your PC uniquely, with very few errors.

And all this without it ever putting a cookie anywhere near your PC.  Now, there are ways around this – there always are – but they’re not the sort of approaches that the average man or woman in the street would take.

So what sort of ‘advantage’ would such a technology offer online companies, Government and the Security Services?

Now, this is pure supposition – I have absolutely no evidence at all that this is happening or is likely to happen…but let’s pretend.  We’ll assume that a number of large online companies have collaborated on sharing this fingerprint data – basically you visit a site or even a page – or maybe even do searches for certain subjects – and your electronic fingerprint is tagged on to that fact.

Scenario 1.  You do a search for information on equipment to help you avoid speed cameras.  Later that day you go to buy car insurance.  The insurer does a quick check on your ‘fingerprint’ against topics of interest to it – including sites offering legal advice for people caught speeding and also sites that inform or advise on speed traps.  You show up – you’re declined.

Scenario 2.  You’re interested in computer hacking – maybe even researching a book.  You visit a number of sites of interest, look at books on Amazon and such.  A few weeks later a major ‘hack’ happens and the authorities look at the electronic fingerprints of everyone who may have researched the topic.  You will show up.  This fingerprint is then circulated around ISPs who note that it is one that is associated with your Internet account.

Scenario 3. You’re gay in a country run by a repressive regime.  You visit web sites where the fingerprinting is being done for commercial marketing reasons.  The security services of your country get hold of this data, either by buying it or stealing it, and run a check of those fingerprints against the ones that are on file with the ISPs of that country.  You will find yourself in major trouble.

There are ways around this technique – it’s easy to go through proxies, and possible to strip all this sort of identifying data off of the packets that go to web sites.  And people who’re genuinely worried (or have reason to avoid this sort of inspection) will no doubt be doing this.  But for the vast majority of people this simply would be yet another means of intrusion in to our private lives.