Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Google: The new NSA?

A post today by News Dissector Danny Schechter sent shivers up my spine (though that happens often these days):
Google research scientists want your computer to watch television with you so it can deliver personalised internet content at the same time. In their paper Google researchers Michele Covell and Shumeet Baluja propose using ambient-audio identification technology to capture TV sound with a laptop PC to identify the show that is the source of the sound...

With such a system, Google could extend its online dominance into television, and presumably radio, by offering advertisers unparalleled insight into the mass media audience.
Media execs (see this Information Week article) are probably thrilled with the opportunity to get info based on spying on the sound in your livingroom:
"It's an interesting concept because we all sit with our laptops while watching TV," says Cynthia Brumfield, president of media research consultancy Emerging Media Dynamics.
Suppose NSA asked for Google's data and decided that you were watching too much PBS or Democracy Now!? Or worse, suppose Google supplied them with everything that was said in your house while your computer was on? What's interesting to Ms. Brumfield should be a red flag to privacy and civil rights advocates. And a call to disconnect that microphone or headset you leave plugged into your computer all the time. The program described in these articles is very sophisticated spyware, and if your computer is on, anything heard nearby can be processed and recorded. Of course, we are assured that no such thing is happening (right now!).

If not Google (or the NSA), someone may be listening through your microphone. Or (if you have a camera installed) watching everything you do. Yes, spyware can do that.

It's old news that under the Patriot Act the FBI can sneak into your house and put a monitoring program into your computer without your knowledge. Technology such as described above may be even easier and more accessible to the spymasters.

Imagine you downloaded Google Earth and tried it out. (Would you know if that program were reporting everyplace you "visited" to Google/NSA? Did you check out the scene in Baghdad or maybe London?) But back to spyware. Suppose this or another program installed spyware in your PC that, unbenownst to you, started recording and reporting anything said near your computer to Google/NSA?

Am I being paranoid? You decide: did you think that the NSA would ask for and get calling data (including yours?) from the phone companies?

Once data is gathered, no one can say that it will remain private or be protected. The loss of Veterans Administration personal data is another demonstration of this.

More reading:

The NSA ...oops... the Google paper on how this is supposed to work, including assurances thaeavesdroppingng is impossible: Social- and Interactive-Television Applications Based on Real-Time Ambient-Audio Identification

The Information Week article Google Researchers Propose TV Monitoring: By capturing TV sound with a laptop PC, Google can identify the show and use that information to immediately return personalized Internet content to the PC.


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