Google CEO Eric Schmidt had some scary things to say about privacy yesterday. In a nutshell, he said there's an almost incomprehensible amount of data out there about all of us -- much of which we've generated ourselves via social networks, blogs, and so on -- and we are totally unprepared to deal with the implications of that fact.
Schmidt was speaking at the Techonomy confab, currently underway at California's Lake Tahoe, where large-brained people gather to talk about how technology and the economy intersect.
Marshall Kirkpatrick of Read Write Web distilled the highlights: "There was 5 exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilisation through 2003," Schmidt said, "but that much information is now created every 2 days, and the pace is increasing...People aren't ready for the technology revolution that's going to happen to them...."
"If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use Artificial Intelligence," Schmidt said, "we can predict where you are going to go."
"Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are. You think you don't have 14 photos of yourself on the internet? You've got Facebook photos! People will find it's very useful to have devices that remember what you want to do, because you forgot...But society isn't ready for questions that will be raised as result of user-generated content."
Are visions of 2001's HAL 9000 or maybe The Terminator's SkyNet dancing in your head yet? How about Minority Report or Enemy of the State?
In those movies, it was malevolent machines or government agencies that played the boogieman. In Schmidt's scenario, the source of evil is a lot murkier.
Schmidt wasn't really trying to draw disaster scenarios. He noted that a lot of positive benefits can come from the information explosion, and he's right. Personally, if not for the Internet, I might be in another line of work. I'd almost certainly live in another city. Being able to access vast amounts of data without lifting my butt from this ergonomic chair has transformed my life in dozens of ways, as I'm sure it has tranformed others'.
Of course, Google is in the business of monetising that data, for which it seems to possess an insatiable appetite. And sometimes it screws up big time. Schmidt didn't really talk about that.
The good side of all this data: instant information about virtually anything. The dark side? Vast potential for personal profiling by your employer, your insurer, and The Man.
The fact is, your participation in a political forum might cause someone to not hire you. Your comments to a blog post about a particular medical condition may inspire an insurer to decline coverage. The Web sites you visit, the books you download and the movies you stream could get you on a watchlist -- or worse.
Sound like a paranoid fantasy? It's happened before, in different places and times, in different ways. From now on, though, it will happen via the Net. The stunning profusion of data out there -- and Google's very efficient methods for collecting and organizing that data -- make it all possible.
Schmidt seems like a decent enough guy (though the resemblance to Howdy Doody is a bit unnerving). I don't think he or his company are evil; but I do believe that like most corporations -- and people, for that matter -- Google has its own best interests at heart. Those interests lie in keeping Schmidt's search engine stoked with more and more data.
He's right, though. We're unprepared. And when the data tsunami hits, all of us will get soaked. Hope you brought your all-weather gear.