Tag Archives: privacy

Google: Behind the screen

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GOOGLE: A critical look at Google behind the screen

A wise man once said: “We should always be cautious of that which is powerful.” No doubt Google has become an extremely powerful entity in our modern lives. It can be argued that it is fast becoming the gatekeeper of all of the world’s information — the new Great Library of Alexandria. Yet to be cautious of this requires reason to be so, and what better place to start than to understand how Google works.

HOW GOOGLE WORKS

Internet databaseGoogle can basically be separated into three parts – search, database and interface. To take account of all the new information and web pages that appear on the web on a daily basis, Google sends out digital robots (also called bots, spiders or crawlers). These bits of software crawl the Internet and scan new content and web pages. They assess what words, and more specifically, what keywords, are used on each page and send these to a database.

The physical part of the Internet can basically be thought of as huge, underground databases. Envision underground computers with powerful processors and lots of storage space. All the information gathered by the Google bots is brought back to these databases where it is stored. Importantly, information is only gathered from the web pages which Google sends out bots for. This excludes web pages that are not indexed by Google, are hidden from Google or require a password or some kind of authority to access.

And then we have the interface. This is essentially the Google search bar, which we are all familiar with and often take completely for granted. When we type in keywords or search phrases into the Google search bar, the Google bots search the database and bring up web pages that contain a high number of those keywords.

HOW GOOGLE BEGAN AND GREW

Google billboard equationGoogle began with a small group of engineers in 1999, who became overnight billionaires after Google went public in 2004. The company now employs the keenest minds from around the world and is still growing. At one point Google devised a mathematical equation which was advertised on large billboards worldwide. Solving the equation and typing the result into the Google search bar took one to the Google jobs page.

It has to be said that Google employees with cushy jobs have it good. At the corporate Google Headquarters (Googleplex) in California, employees are allowed 20% of their working time to pursue whatever they are passionate about. There are also several stress-relieving facilities available such as gyms to volley ball courts. Employees may even get a professional massage during their lunch breaks.

The Google goldmine is in advertising. Generally the first three web pages that appear as a result of a search are sponsored links. These are usually highlighted in some way. The links that appear along the right-hand column are also sponsored links. Companies bid against one another for these spots, which has proven to be an effective and profitable system.

GOOGLE’S GOALS

Google’s initial aim was to create the world’s best search engine. Its stated goal now is to host all of the world’s information. Google Search has literally expanded into space, with offerings such as Google Books, Google Maps and Google Mars just to name a few. However, there is also the phenomenon of Internet users constantly pouring in new content. The goal on Google’s part here is to organise all this information.

GoogleplexThe Internet is now flooded with large amounts of opinion pieces as more and more people throw in their two cents. But how can a search engine be objective and rank opinion? At one point in time, a search for “the holocaust” fetched articles with titles such as “Did the Holocaust really happen?” A search for “the truth behind 9/11” fetched a host of conspiracy theories arguing that 9/11 was a governmental orchestrated undertaking.

With such an influx of good and bad information, it’s fair to say that Google employees have their work cut out for them. To keep things democratic, Google has started giving preference to web pages that update more frequently and are more interactive in terms of user participation and commentary. The relevance of any piece of information on the web is also largely determined by how many external web pages link or point to that information.

ISSUES OF PRIVACY

The fact that Google stores user information is not something it tries to cover up. It openly states that this information is used to help improve Google services. However, even if Google doesn’t misuse this information, there is very little preventing others from doing so. Information regarding user behaviour, such as your search habits and history for example, can and have been sold to third-party advertisers arming their spam cannons.

Whether we consider Google as a profit driven company acting under a façade or not, the question begged for, really, is whether Google (and ergo the Internet in general) will ultimately become a public enterprise or a public enterprise.

A further point of concern is the idea of Google having a monopoly over all of the world’s information. While anyone is free to create a search engine, your chances of competing with Google and being taken seriously are less than slim.

As difficult as it may be, laws of media diversity will have to find a firmer place online if we are to prevent a situation of having one world view or ideology at the expense of critical thought.

Why Google is called Google
The name “Google” originated from a misspelling of “googol”, which refers to 10100 (the number represented by a one followed by 100 zeros). Having found its way into everyday language, the verb “google” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006, and means “to use the Google search engine to obtain information on the Internet.” — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google

Smart Dust: computers and people

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SMART DUST: People and computers living in perfect harmony?

COMPUTERS have advanced so splendidly in the past few years that electricians are now able to make micro-computers the size of pinheads. The proposed applications for computers of this size range from modifying the weather to controlling the electrical infrastructure of large cities. Of course, it is wise to be wary of anything that is powerful and to analyse critically the potential of such technology before it involuntarily becomes an integral part of our lives.

Smartdust

Dr Kristofer Pister demonstrating the size of smart dust particles (Images: newilluminati.blog-city.com)

Smart dust is one particular brand of microcomputers that has been hailed as a society-changing element that will greatly improve and change the way we live our daily lives. Devised by Dr Kristofer Pister from the University of California in 2001, smart dust is able to gather information from its surrounding environment and send this to people or other computers.

A smart dust particle or mote is a wireless sensor that has four basic functions — sensing, computation, communication and power — all built into one tiny package. With smart dust being so low powered and inexpensive, the idea is to spread it everywhere — in every building, on every street, in every electrical device and ultimately, in or on every human being.

What smart dust is able to do is create a large invisible network that, in theory, would be able to manage the infrastructure of even the largest city in the world. Streets and buildings would be able to recognise people and respond accordingly. Workplaces would recognise employees and buzz you into the building. Smart dust could even send a lift to your floor and boot up your PC.

Of course the major concern involves privacy. If all of this information about you is available and gathered by smart dust, who else has access to it? Smart dust would also allow certain people to know exactly where you are at all times and could quite easily turn on you and deny you freedom of movement and access. It may sound like something from a movie, but the amount of control that powerful people could have on the masses via smart dust is certainly something to be cautious of.

What is a good idea is having smart dust monitor our roadways and transport systems. Smart dust scattered on the roads would be able to report potholes and traffic jams to commuters, and smart dust on the railways would be able to accurately report late trains in an instant. Bridges coated in smart dust would be able to report stress fractures, helping to avoid collapse and prevent disaster.

Smartdust

The first smart dust particles created in 2001, which were about the size of a deck of playing cards.

But do we want such fabric dispersed everywhere? Smart dust may be evolving to the microscopic level, but it is by no means undeniably safe. Several news reports were released in the past decade about a similar substance known as global environmental sensors (GEMS) that had been released into the atmosphere to monitor weather conditions. There was very little thought given to these electrical particles being inhaled once they descended to Earth, nor any given to the fact that several micro-organisms could ingest smart dust and die as a result.

It almost seems worth having to boot up your work PC manually and save a termite population in the process.

The future of social networking

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AUGMENTED REALITY: Evolving into a highly transparent society

EARLIER this year I discussed the developments of SixthSense technology, which, in a nutshell, is the idea of wearing a gestural interface that augments the physical world with digital information and lets us use natural hand gestures to interact with that information.

In other words, having a mirror, pocket projector, camera and a cellphone connected to web on your person, would allow the world around us to become like a computer displaying certain information and performing particular tasks on request. Making a viewing box using your fingers and thumbs, for example, would take a photograph in a SixthSense world.

Such developments have been in progress since the beginning of this year. However, these have also been met with serious debates over people’s personal privacy and raised more than a few concerns.

It’s difficult to say if and how (or perhaps more importantly, when) such technology will enter society and become a part of our daily lives (at least for the digital elite with large bank balances). Nevertheless, several concept ideas are emerging to give us an idea of what living with such technology may be like.

The following is a concept investigation courtesy of online media expert Matthew Buckland (www.matthewbuckland.com):

A concept investigation
Below are some concept designs that Matthew Buckland and ace designer Philip Langley put their heads together to create. It’s an investigation into how social networking may work in the future, focusing on mobile and augmented reality.

“Our investigations were inspired in particular by some brilliant (AR) concept drawings, which I often use in presentations I give,” said Buckland on his blog.

“After some brainstorming and quite a few mockups, we came up with the below. Admittedly, augmented reality (AR) is the new hype, but you can see how valuable (and scary) this could be when applied to a social networking paradigm. It assumes amazing resolutions, facial and object recognition, and more accurate GPS — none of these far off.” — Matthew Buckland.

Face recognition
Futuros Man
Imagine holding up your phone or other digital device against a person you’ve just met or passed by. You’d instantly have information returned about that person within seconds, gleaned from an automa­tic web, public profile and social network search.

You’d discover common friends, talking points — and then have the ability to add him or her to your network. Using a semantic scan, you’d discover negative or positive comments on Google or elsewhere relating to this individual. It would be instant insight into the guy or girl standing right in front of you.

Databases and directories

Futuros Street

Discover who lives where and how you are connected; then phone them, e-mail them, add them to your network right then and there. Get other news about the suburb and other socio-economic information. If they’re part of your network, what are they saying about their suburb or the best pizza joint in the area?

You’d be able to hold up your phone in a crowded room and work out who is connected to whom. You could instantly gauge your primary and secondary networks and instantly work out who you should chat to, what the conversation points are, and perhaps who you should avoid.

Where are the cliques? Who’s an outsider in the crowd? What’s the buzz? We’ll never forget a person’s name again, suggests Buckland.

Goodbye to privacy?
Futuros Crowd
“Privacy is already an issue of concern, now and for our digital future, says Buckland. We’re still working out the ethical and moral framework around this. We may even see a backlash from society angry at this intrusion. It may, however, end up being okay because you will (mostly) be in control — you could refuse access to SNs, don’t tweet, assume personas etc.”

“But there will be information about you that you won’t be able to control too. There’ll be inevitable abuse and misuse of the information, which [will hopefully] be manageable.”

“However, more importantly — from a privacy perspective — almost everyone will be in the same boat more or less. We may evolve into a society that’s highly transparent and accountable. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry …”

IMAGES: Matthew Buckland and Philip Langley
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