Google CEO warns of data explosion and future without privacy

Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, has warned of a frightening future where a data explosion will result in it being extremely easy to identify you, where you are, and what you are up to. Nothing to do with Google, of course.

Speaking at the Techonomy conference, he said: “If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use Artificial Intelligence, we can predict where you are going to go.”

Let’s face it, he’s not wrong there. With websites like FourSquare focusing on your location and users submitting details of their own free will, it is inevitable that a map of where you have been will be created, which can easily be used to identify and predict where you will be. Google won’t be exempt from this either, as it has hinted that its Google Me social networking site will be location-based too.

“Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are,” Schmidt continued, not revealing if the “we” was meant to be Google. “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 a result of user-generated content.”

The nightmarish future that Schmidt foresees is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Cynics could suggest it’s already here.

Google already knows what you search for through its search engine and stores that data for a long period of time. Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and other social notworking sites regularly store your data, so much so that a new Facebook Users’ Union has started demanding payment for the data it uses.

Every forum you visit and post on gives another bit of info about you. If you link a screename to your real name someone out there will be able to match all the data. And this is only now; what happens when the data tsunami strikes us tomorrow?

Schmidt warns that we are not ready for it: “There was 5 exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days, and the pace is increasing.”

In a stark warning, he added: “People aren’t ready for the technology revolution that’s going to happen to them.”

Note “to them”. This isn’t about raw data hitting the web. It’s your data, data you didn’t even know was going up there. The CIA doesn’t need to profile you; it just needs to browse the internet, because you will have inadvertently profiled yourself.

If that was not enough, €3 billion worth of data is lost in the EU every year, suggesting that even the companies that will help bring about this explosion of data are not ready for it. Much of the data will disappear into the ether, but some will inevitably get into the wrong hands – if there are any right hands – making it easier to find out who you are and nick your identity.

For those worried about privacy, the future looks grim. Schmidt said that there will be many benefits to the data explosion, but at the same time his company draws more and more wary eyes as it digs a deeper hole into the personal lives of others. 

Its database of search terms has caused concern for years. Its Streetview snooping has raised the ire of many. It has teamed up with the CIA to invest in web monitoring software intended to predict the future (which may be how Schmidt knows about what is to come). It has even started buying unmanned air vehicles with built-in cameras.

When Schmidt warns us of what is to come, of how we are not ready and how exposed we will be when the tide comes in, we have to wonder if much of it will be there because of companies like Google.