In 2007, Google launched a new application. It was Google Street View, and its aim was to allow anyone with access to the internet, access to the world.

Hidden behind this noble goal however, was a dark and insidious motive: to allow Google unfettered access into your home.

Users of Google Earth could already explore the world from the sky, but it was a flat, lifeless impression of it. Street View would allow users to explore the guts of great cities, their culture and spirit from a height just taller than a grown man. Brits could explore the Sydney Opera House and Australians could explore Stonehenge as though they were there, in only a few clicks.

Street View was to bring the world into cyberspace on a scale and in a way never seen before.

To gather the images necessary, photographs were taken by a number of specially adapted vehicles, including tricycles for off-road trails and snowmobiles for mountain ranges, but the bulk of images were recorded by cars. These white automobiles with large cameras mounted on the roofs would slink through the streets, absorbing every inch of the scenery.

But this wasn’t all they carried. Unbeknownst to the public, who were preoccupied with pretending to be dead as the cars drove past, many of the cars held additional equipment with a much more nefarious purpose.

This equipment consisted of scanners, designed to infiltrate unsecured Wi-Fi networks. As the cars slowly trundled past homes, not only would they be taking photos of the front door, they would be “scraping” all the personal data they could find from Wi-Fi networks lacking a password. The less tech savvy in society, like the elderly, were easy pickings.

For the data gluttons at Google, Street View was a feast. Not only could they gorge on the images of Britain’s exterior, where every worked, ate, drank, and lived, by prying into the Wi-Fi networks, even more succulent flesh could be found within.

All the information could be poured down the “big data” funnel, to be churned into nuggets of knowledge that advertisers would pay top dollar for.

The discovery that this had been occurring caused significant public uproar in Germany, where memories of the Stasi left citizens valuing their privacy more. But it is here where the actors remove their masks, and their true identities are shown.

Germany fined Google $189,225 for its spying on its citizens. To put that in context, it’s what Google earned every two minutes the previous year; a truly paltry sum. But the German regulator could have fined Google $195,000 – the maximum applicable fine for the country. Why didn’t it?

Well as it turns out the government gave Google a discount, in exchange for a copy of the data Google had illegally acquired.

There is great demand for the data trough. Governments envy Google for its ability to record information – it would use it in the interests of “security”, and to keep an eye on society. The data Google acquires, it primarily sells to advertisers, but not before analysing it for its own purposes.

 

Huffing data exhaust

No scrap of data Google collects is too insignificant to sell if its kind can be gathered in large enough quantities – in fact, insignificant data has its own name: data exhaust. Data exhaust consists of searches, emails, images, songs, videos, locations, communication patterns, networks, purchases, clicks, misspelled words, page views, and more are all fair game. Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger sum this up well in their book Big Data: “Many companies design their systems so that they can harvest data exhaust … Google is the undisputed leader… every action a user performs is considered a signal to be analyzed and fed back into the system.”

These signals are commoditised and monetised, packaged and sold. Often, “big data” analytics firms will rifle through it all again to find more meaning in it, before selling it to some else.

Using Google is now second nature to the overwhelming majority of internet users. Even testing whether or not you have internet is often done by typing a random word or gibberish into Google. This very activity will create data exhaust for Google to sell.

Wits’ end

I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

Ecclesiastes 1, verse 17-18

This past week we have been looking closely at the ocean of information we’re adrift in, and the currents which drag us through it. Humanity has never had as much access to information as it does today, and never have we recorded so much of it.

Those who can harness the streams of data flowing across the planet grow rich and powerful. They assess metadata, and use big data analytics to predict the future and mine knowledge. But this process in itself generates more data, which can be analysed also. The Tower of Babel grows ever taller, and leaves those at the bottom in awe and fear of its great height.

More data is now uploaded every single day than was uploaded for the entire year of 2003. The amount of data being generated every day will only continue with more people coming online every second.

The sheer quantity of information out there is impossible to comprehend. And we’ve got a portal straight into it, right in our pockets.

Sometimes it seems this portal is reaching out to us – we grow heavily attached to our devices, and feel lost without them. But for some, this pressure can grow too much.

The immense amount of information we are exposed to begins to feel like sensory overload. It is stifling. Overpowering. Suddenly, we wish it were simpler.

Like the good old days

Nostalgia for “dumb” mobile phones lacking internet capabilities actually led Nokia to re-release its classic “brick” phone, the 3310, in a more modern .

But even this is not enough for some. They want to get rid of anything society or the state might use to monitor them – smartphones and computers are out. No fiat currency for these folks either, only the good stuff – gold and silver. And now, paper wallets of bitcoin, too – innocuous looking notes of paper with random characters printed on them are easy to smuggle across borders and are far less likely to be stolen. More on that side of the picture here.

I’m not quite at the stage of disillusionment and detachment where I want to leave society. It does have a certain allure though, and I’ve certainly been close in the past. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to write newsletters like this.

I was actually still at school when Google Earth launched. When we had classes which let us use computers, my friends and I would often boot up Google Earth that the school had installed and play the flight simulator option instead of working. You could only fly two planes – an SR22 prop plane or an F16 fighter jet. We would spend our precious study time flying over and crashing into famous landmarks across the globe, on an aimless crusade through cyberspace. My favourite pursuit was to attempt to land on the peak of Mount Everest. I actually managed this (once!) in the propeller plane, much to the chagrin of my peers.

Good memories. Tarnished, ever so slightly, by the thought that somewhere out there, deep within a server, Google holds perfect digital records of my youthful flights of fancy. To think my numerous attempts at conquering Everest are a commodity to be sold is odd. How many fond memories are there out there, being traded for ad revenue without the knowledge of the host? Food for thought.

All the best,

Boaz Shoshan

PS Is privacy a fair price to pay for the services companies like Google provide? What do you think? boaz@southbankresearch.com.