Thinking about a trip to Bali? If you've mentioned it on Gmail, Google knows and has already bombarded your screen with advertisements about where to stay and what to do. Precisely where were you last Thursday at midday? If you are one of the many millions with an Android phone, Google knows because it tracks your phone's movements. Daniel Soar, of the London Review of Books, took the trouble to check Google's tracking of his own phone's movements, and discovered that "on April 30, 2011, at 4.33pm I was at Willesden Junction station, travelling west". Favourite shops, style of clothing, restaurants, genre of books? Google's got it covered, and learns more and becomes smarter every time you ask it a question, check out a YouTube video, pull up a map or log into Google+.
When he was CEO, Schmidt hardly calmed public concerns about privacy when he declared: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time and it's important to remember, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."
Schmidt himself discovered that privacy is a double-edged sword. In 2005, a reporter from tech website CNET News used Google's own search tools to learn all sorts of things about Schmidt, including his home address, his route to work, his political ties and his wealth. Schmidt was unamused and Google withdrew any contact with CNET's reporters for two months, declaring its use of private information was inappropriate.
A big screen at the Googleplex grants perspective on the magnitude of the traffic in information. A globe of the world revolves through its days and nights. Streams of millions of microdots, each representing a search question, cascade into the ether, dying off as late night envelops each country, spurting anew as dawn arrives. For every search request, Google learns a bit more about the questioner. Only the African continent, or most of it, remains dark most of the time, waiting for the internet to pierce its vast poverty. Google doesn't know much about Africans. Yet.
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