Google Goggles is both the coolest thing I’ve seen all week (maybe all month) and the scariest thing I’ve seen all week (maybe this decade… or in my lifetime). Will it lead to an Orwellian style “big brother” take over by Google and all things Government? Well… lets checkout the facts first, and then I’ll tell you why I think this is something you should be concerned with… or at least put some thought into.
Just the Facts Ma’am
Google has long been the king of the search engines, and you probably knew that Google had an image search… but now with Google Goggles, you can search images! Let me explain. If you’ve got an Android powered phone (and maybe more phones soon) you can download the Goggles application from the Android Marketplace and it will allow you to take pictures of things, and then do searches based on those pictures… meaning it can tell what it is you’ve taken a picture of. As an example the company uses a picture taken of the Golden Gate bridge or the Eiffel Tower, and then the application returns search results of those landmarks; such as things of interest nearby, the history behind the location… you know, normal Google search goodness. Other examples given by the company are pictures of a book which can yield things like the name and author and where you can buy it. I’m particularly interested in this functionality because it could potentially allow you to walk into a store and ensure you’re getting the best deal on anything you’re buying. Pretty cool stuff.
"Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating?”
Call me crazy, but this is also a little scary. Why? Think “facial recognition”. “But Dan”, you say “they’d have to have a HUGE database of images to pull that off!” Let me paint this picture for you. A short while ago Google announced that it had inked a deal with Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter that would allow them hooks into the respective sites to bolster their new real-time search functionality. Now, on first go around the point of this integration is to allow you to get search results that show up-to-the-second results of what people are saying about what you’ve just searched for. Type in a search about New Moon, and it’ll hand you back Twitter comments about New Moon as well as the usual links you’d expect from such a search. But lets think about that for a second. Facebook and MySpace… hmmm… at last count there were some 251 pictures of me tagged on Facebook (and who knows how many on MySpace… haven’t been to that site in AGES) of which depict about every imaginable angle of my face. I have personally provided them with a database of pictures of myself, which I have verified are me by tagging myself in them. So could Google expand it’s search to tap into that? Why not!?
Let’s take Facebook and MySpace out of the argument for just a second, and take a look at Google Profiles. Google Profiles are something Google invented a while back to help manage your digital identity. With the profile you can add links to all your websites, blogs, Twitter stream… anything you want… as well as places you’ve lived, worked, and gone to school. Additionally, you can provide a picture (which by the way increases your “search-ability”) of yourself and link to your Flickr account… yet ANOTHER database of pictures. All this to help you dictate what people find about you, when they search for you. You have to be signed in to Google for it to display these results, but go ahead… search for my name… you’ll see my picture on the first page. See where I’m going with all this?
So how could something like this play out? Let’s say you’re walking down the street with your phone and you snap a picture of someone walking by… Google Goggles, or some iteration of it, could feasibly instantly return to you the name of that person, where they are from, where they live now, their marital status, their political party affiliation, their birthday, their blogs, what the last 5 comments they made on Twitter were (which could possibly tell you where they just ate… or are headed to eat), who their friends are, and even people you may know in common. YIKES!! With all that information it’d be awfully easy for a crook to convince you that they know you, wouldn’t it? Consider that our phones can know our exact location at any given moment with the built in GPS functionality and Google could combine that with the picture search for an even higher confidence level that the person you just searched for, is in fact the person Google is telling you they are because you’re standing in their home town and the place they work is just right down the street! Holy CRAP!
It doesn’t stop there. Google has a long history of creating super nice programming APIs for developers to tap into the neat tools they’ve created. So if you wanted to, you can make your own program around something like Google Maps and essentially create your own version of Google Earth. Now, Google Labs has yet to say whether or not they’ll be creating such an API, but if they do, it would be easy enough for Law Enforcement to tie in their own camera systems to this visual search engine and get a real-time feed of who is walking by their camera. Creepy. (Oh.. don’t even get me started with where this could lead with Google hacking)
Before anyone gets totally freaked out, lets calm down and realize that the only way this works is if we provide “the system” with the information it needs. As of this writing, and in the foreseeable future, Google can only search that which is open to the world. The good news is that, when used correctly, the new security features that Facebook is rolling out this week will allow you to decide at a granular level what is searchable… and what is not. If you’ve got all your profiles set as securely as possible… you’ll definitely be limiting your search footprint. Ultimately if you’re REALLY concerned about this, you should probably start deleting all your pictures, web pages, blogs, and Twitter accounts… like yesterday… but that might not even work (check out www.archive.org yep…still there!).
So what do YOU think, am I just being paranoid? I’d love to hear your feedback. Oh, and remember… just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!
– Dan Thompson