Thursday, May 24, 2007

Who's Watching You?

Earlier in the week British police announced the trial of a new CCTV heli-drone that would patrol over the heads of the residents of Merseyside. This is in addition to the existing fixed CCTV cameras that flood Britain, at a rate of 1 for every 14 people. As recently as last week the British government announced plans to add microphones and speakers to existing CCTV cameras.

At the same time more than 3 million people have their DNA stored in a national DNA database. Early this month is was revealed that almost half a million of them are children, and almost 100,000 are under 16. About a third of all samples belong to people with no criminal record. Should their DNA ever be found at a crime scene they will be expected to explain why.

Also yesterday, Google CEO Eric Schmidt spoke to some journalists in London. He describes the future goal of Google -- that the algorithms be smart enough, and their databases thorough enough, that should I ask Google 'What job should I go for?' or 'What should I do tomorrow' it will be able to give me a sensible, personalised answer based on its knowledge of what jobs or events are out there, and which ones I'm likely to enjoy. This system does not yet exist.

Google's database is, like all things Google, entirely opt-in. I can choose if I wish Google to remember my Search History, or if I want to search entirely anonymously. The British governments DNA database and CCTV network is *not* voluntary. The CCTV networks and DNA databases do exist.

Today The Independent, ever mindful of my privacy rights, and rightfully concerned with the spectre of a 'Big Brother' society, ran an article on their front page with the headline, "Google is Watching YOU". Apparently the Forth Estate sees this opt-in system, that may exist some time in the future, written by non-government corporation, as a bigger Orwellian threat to my privacy than the existing, non-voluntary, government run programs whose powers are being constantly expanded.

I can search the web, using Google, and choose not to have my searches remembered. The same option does not exist for 'walking around in London' without being photographed 1,000 times. I suppose I could keep my head covered at all times by wearing a 'hoodie', but that's unlikely to end well.

So, which is more Orwellian, a nation with speaking, listening CCTV cameras every 20feet, where the government keeps my DNA on file, and which is in a never-ending war on 'terror' -- or a search engine that remembers the things I've searched for in the past to generate suggestions for the future?

Any company that compiles a database of my personal behaviour deserves scrutiny. Google is no exception, and I'm glad to hear the European data protection watchdogs are asking Google questions about its data retention policies. But a front page scare article on a major UK broadsheet? I can't help but think they're looking the wrong direction...

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