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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 13:11 GMT
Who is watching the watchers?
Being watched is only part of the problem, argues regular commentator Bill Thompson.

Google logo, AP
Google knows a lot about your web-using habits
While it is interesting to note that Google's UK advertising revenue this year is likely to outstrip that of Channel 4 and may soon approach ITV's, we should not let our reading of these particular runes get out of hand.

£900m is not really that much money, under 5% of the total spent advertising to us all each year, and the Google model is so very different from that of TV that any claims Google is taking money from commercial TV should be treated with scepticism.

Google isn't for vast corporate campaigns but for the small-scale operators who might bid for a few AdWords but would never consider a 15 or 30-second slot, even on regional TV.

According to search marketing consultancy Greenlight around 60% of online ad spending goes on this sort of search advertising.

Google's founders became billionaires "one nickel at a time", as new media watcher John Battelle put it in his book Search. It even shared its largesse with site owners like me, and my one short-term experiment with AdSense on a political blog I used to run netted $56. I'm still owed the money, of course, as Google only pays out when it hits $100.

Shoulder surfing

The really worrying aspect of Google's growth is not that it challenges commercial television. There are many reasons why scheduled TV of any type, commercial, subscription or publicly-funded, is on the way out, and losing advertisers to Google is not really a major factor, whatever the executives might say.

Their growth is more worrying because it shows just how dominant Google has become in search. Yahoo! and MSN are large, but Google is enormous, and millions of us send our search queries to its server farms every day. We are handing over our online lives to the company, allowing it to shape our experiences, decide what we look at and determine what is or is not important.

And it is finding out about us, by keeping records of every query made, tracking which computer is being used through the use of "cookies", and linking search with other services like GMail, Google Maps and Orkut through user registration.

Bill Thompson
A modern democratic state is us, all of us, and it exists with our consent and for our benefit as citizens. Perhaps we should think more about privacy, and work harder to ensure that it survives into the information age.
Bill Thompson

In 2004 the independent Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, told The Times: "My anxiety is that we don't sleepwalk into a surveillance society where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people, shared across many more boundaries than British society would feel comfortable with."

Last week a report from the Surveillance Studies Network made it clear that we didn't heed his warning, and that the UK is now a highly monitored society, with "dataveillance" - the use of computer, credit card, mobile phone and loyalty card information - increasingly common. Google, along with other online firms like Amazon which tracks users, are a key aspect of this.

The Commissioner is brave to raise the issue, because his concerns seem to be shared by neither the Government which appointed him nor the majority of the population who are directly affected by the developments that he highlights.

Part of the reason for complacency is that we have not seen the emergence of "Big Brother", a vast centralised apparatus of surveillance and control. The levels of monitoring and influence available to both public and private operators today go far beyond anything Orwell or his Inner Party imagined but they are distributed among many observers, both public and private.

At the moment it is only the distributed nature of the information stores, the lack of standardisation and the absence of an overarching information architecture that leaves us free.

Spot check

London Transport watched me get on the 63 bus last Friday, but unless they have another reason to take an interest in me then the information will go unremarked, and nobody will relate this to the fact that I withdrew some money from an cash machine in Northampton Square later that day.

CCTV camera, AP
Many cities are studded with CCTV cameras
We can see the real danger of standards in the observation that thousands of private webcams are accessible to anyone who cares to watch over the web. This is not surprising, since people who install the cameras probably don't understand what they are doing. What is more interesting is that a Google search for a specific part of a web address will uncover all of them because they have a standard setup.

Without Google the chances of stumbling on one of these cameras is almost zero, but now they are there for everyone to see. As more and more information goes into databases there is more chance of connections like this being made by someone, somewhere, whether deliberately or inadvertently.

And when that happens we will see the end of privacy.

True anonymity has rarely been achievable, as we can see from the attention lavished on the very few serious criminals who achieved it. Jack the Ripper is interesting because we do not know who he was, but few manage to melt away so effectively.

But we rarely need to be anonymous. Often all we need is strong "pseudonymity", the ability to present a face or an identity that will do for the purpose in hand and is not trivially traceable back.

We could use technology to enhance our freedom. An identity card system based on strong biometric measures could allow me multiple personae, attesting only to the fact that I am adult, or British, or qualified to drive without saying anything else, even a name - the system might know my name but the landlord has no reason to.

Yet that is not how things go.

Google has designed its systems around its own convenience, storing every query ever made. For instance, it hands out cookies that expire in 2038 so it can track clickstreams and query histories, rewriting the way it returns search results so that it knows if you click on the first or the tenth query - and how long it took you to make up your mind. In the same way public sector technology systems are still being designed with the convenience of the state in mind.

We should remember that things have changed since Louis XIV pronounced "l'état c'est moi". A modern democratic state is us, all of us, and it exists with our consent and for our benefit as citizens. Perhaps we should think more about privacy, and work harder to ensure that it survives into the information age.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet

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