Google and ‘The Dead Past’

Earlier this year we saw the launch of Google’s Street View system – here – and with it came a plethora of complaints about the invasion of privacy implications.   I was one of the happy complainants – Google had a view right through my house, showing people in the house.  To be honest, their reaction was swift and the imagery was removed, but it was an invasion of privacy and I’m still to be convinced that there is any long term gain to be obtained from the system.  yes, I’m aware of all the ‘well, you can see what a neighbourhood’s like before buying a house there’ arguments, but if you do all your checking out of the largest investment you’ll ever make on the Internet then you deserve to find yourself living between a Crack Den and a student house.

Enough…step back and breathe…the title of this piece is ‘Google and ‘The Dead Past’ – now what on Earth do I mean by that?

Science Fiction afficionados amongst you may recognise part of the title as coming from an old story by Isaac Asimov, in which a researcher develops a time viewer to look in to the past, only to eventually realise that the past starts exactly a fraction of a second ago – for all practical, human purposes, the past, to his machine, is identical to the present.  He’s accidentally invented the world’s finest surveillance machine.  As a character says at the end of the story – ‘Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, and may each of you fry in hell forever.’

Now, there’s a looooong way to go between Google and eternal damnation through surveillance, but as is often pointed out, the road to Hell is firstly paved with good itentions and always starts with a single step.  Let’s do soem of that old style extrapolation, though, and see what we’ve got coming up in our future.  Here are a few things that have been posited and talked about as being part of our online future,  some of which are already here, some of which are extrapolations, all of which are technically feasible, if not yet politically acceptable.

  1. Decreased latency between changes in the online world and those changes turning up in Search Engines.  At the moment we might expect a day or so even on busy sites regularly trawled by search engines – a possible future might be that items get folded in to search space within hours.  We’re also already heading towards Tweets being searchable – perhaps future APIs will allow combined searches of facebook, Twitter and general webspace all in one shot?
  2. Use of  ‘mechanical turk’ approaches in encouraging people to use their spare time to classify images, scan online video, etc.  to tag media that are currently not searchable by search engines in their raw form. Imagine that being idone in near real-time.  DARPA are already researching tools to extract context out of text and digitised speech; perhaps some degree of automated scanning of video will follow.  And it’s not outlandish to suggest that what might be useful for the military will sooner or later find its way into civillian online life.
  3. The possibilities inherent in IP Version 6 for a massively enlarged Internet Protocol addressing space make it easier than ever to ensure that everything that can have a separate IP address will have a separate IP address.  Combine that with the geolocation capabilities that come with reduced cost GPS chip sets – many phones now have GPS built in – and the tracking of devices (and their owners) in real time or near real time, sold to us as extensions of the social media experience, becomes a reality.
  4. The increasing usage of ‘Cloud’ computing where everything about you is stored not on your computer or phone but on a ‘cloud’ storage system run by your phone company (T-Mobile?), software supplier (Microsoft?), media seller (Amazon?) puts all your digital life in to teh network – where it can be scanned and examined in transit or in storage.

Add to the technical advances the willingness for peopel to share their activities via Social media (or eventually the commoditisation of their activity patterns and media interests, as ISPs and phone companies realise that people will give up a lot of privacy for cheaper connectivity) and we are perhaps heading towards the science fiction scenario described above.

If people were concerned about the impact of Street View on their lives – a single snapshot taken as a one off – imagine the possible impact of your real-life world being captured as a mosaic by different sources and then being rendered and made searchable by interconnected search tools.  A phone call positions you in one place, photographs taken on the same phone and geo-tagged by the software are sent to a searchable social media site and so identify who you were with and when.  You show up in other photos,  as a recipient of a call from another phone, and so on.  The other evening I was asked ‘Who doesn’t want to be tagged in these photos?’ – the new social nicety for people who are concerned over the privacy of their friends.   Sooner or later I’m certain that nicety will slip by the wayside, and it will be up to us to police our own image online.

A recent business enterprise where people are being asked to monitor CCTV cameras in their spare time  – Internet Eyes – may be regarded as distastefully intrusive, but I do wonder whether it’s the start of a whole range of ‘mechanical turk’ type activities where people are encouraged to act as high-tech lace-curtain twitchers.  That past is not looking as dead anymore.

Are you feeling spied on yet?  If not, I’m sure you soon will be.