SuperGoogle: When All Is Known

I call it SuperGoogle. It’s a search engine that knows everything. In fact, it’s less search engine and more oracle. You and I don’t have access to it (yet). If we did, we would turn to it to learn everything about everything and everybody. No information, public or private, is concealed from SuperGoogle. It knows what we write in our email and what we say on the phone. It surely knows everything we buy and everywhere we travel. It knows our medical histories; maybe it’s even seen our DNA. SuperGoogle knows our faces. It can recognize us on a street camera when we stroll on by.

How would you feel about a SuperGoogle knowing almost everything about you? Because soon, it will. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to construct SuperGoogle. Take the Google we know, give it access to a large marketing database such as one of Acxiom’s, throw in the white pages; LexisNexis; our medical records; credit card transactions; location information from our mobile phone operators; INS, IRS, and DMV records; and we’re getting close.

If we want to get really fancy, add some speech-to-text technology at the local phone companies and pile on face-recognition software. Now, SuperGoogle can hear and see. It’s all digital and therefore all searchable. What’s more, all the necessary information sources are connected to the Internet today, albeit some of them behind firewalls and with restricted access.

Does SuperGoogle exist? The answer is complicated. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-initiated Total Information Awareness (TIA) project purportedly was going to scan information sources said to include communications, country entry, critical resources, education, financial, government, housing, medical, place-event entry, transportation, travel, and veterinary. The project was “cancelled” due to public outcry over its privacy implications and the threat of congressional review. Yet most or all of its many subcomponents continue to flourish, led by a mixture of private and government entities.

We know information about us is collected and analyzed at every turn, and we know we get many valuable benefits in return. Yet, research shows though people rely on the benefits of living in an information society, over 80 percent of the American public is concerned about privacy. We don’t know where all the information collected about us goes, nor who can access it. We increasingly feel like we’re surrounded by one-way mirrors without knowing who’s standing on the other side or what they’re doing.

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Congress are debating and trying to define whether cookies are spyware. A California state legislator has introduced legislation to block GMail, Google’s new email service. This legislator and several privacy groups don’t like the way GMail places contextual ads next to messages in your inbox that are triggered by the content in your (private) messages.

Surely, these are important issues and must be addressed. But I see most of what’s happening today in regard to privacy legislation as a wild goose chase at the fringes of the real issues, opportunities, and threats.

Last September, I argued that in an information economy, personal information and identity are valuable assets. The problem is though everyone wants control over the asset, we have no established framework that defines our legal rights. Business and government claim rights to what they collect. At the same time, individuals’ legal rights to access, manage, and control information about themselves are very limited.

Against a backdrop of pervasive information about everything and everyone, and the emergence of SuperGoogle-like technologies and services, privacy must be redefined. Focus on whether there should be contextual ads next to our email or whether a cookie is placed on a computer by a browser so it can track preferences is analogous to using a garden hose to put out a forest fire.

Not only is the tool wrong for the job, indicating we view the problem as a pile of burning leaves in the backyard, but the way the problem is approached just isn’t going to work. Garden hoses, however big and however many we have, can’t stop a forest fire. Unless we find a new way to approach the problem of managing personal information in our information society, it’s likely the fire will only rage ever larger and hotter. Increasingly, people will feel the heat and try to protect themselves by hiding as best they can.

I encourage a new privacy debate. What does privacy mean, and what can we reasonably expect when virtually all about us is known? Companies are trying to build relationships with and service customers. Governments are trying to make people feel safe against a backdrop of global unrest and terror. People want convenience and safety. These and countless other reasons indicate pervasive “surveillance” is here to stay. It’s only a matter of time before someone has a SuperGoogle.

What does privacy mean to the 21st-century citizen? That’s the question we must debate.

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