Google is Watching...err, Listening to You

by Michael on September 11th, 2006 in Industry and Security News.

We're used to the saying, "Big Brother is watching you." Could the future be, "Google is listening?"

As advancements in computer technology become more and more sophisticated, so does the ability to personalize it. We know about cookies, caches, and tracking software, that can let outsiders become in tune with our lifestyles. But at what point does it go too far?

We'll let you decide, after hearing about Google's new plan in the works: a system that listens to background sounds while you're online, and then doles out useful information and (of course!) relevant advertising.

Sound like a futuristic idea? In a recent Technology Review article, Google's director of research, Peter Norvig, said that the software will eventually show up in Google products. Also according to Technology Review, Google talked about the software prototype in Europe this past June.

The new technology will work by picking up background sounds, like music or TV, through your PC's built-in microphone. The software breaks the audio sample into 5 second snippets, creating a digital fingerprint. The fingerprint is matched to a similar one in a database, and then shows content related to what it found: advertising, search results, or a chat room on the subject.

Of course, it's only natural for our minds to jump to all of the privacy issues this new software would raise. With data-mining as it is today, we can only imagine that Google will be keeping records of their recordings. And, especially in light of recent slip-ups, we know that online information leaks do occur. Add in the hijacking factor, and civil liberties activists could have some strong arguments about putting this technology into practice.

According to Google, though, the fingerprinting technology in the prototype makes it impossible for the company to eavesdrop on other sounds in the room, such as personal conversations; the only personal information revealed, Google says, is TV-watching preferences.

In the same Technology Review article, Norvig said, "Some people did get the impression that we had an open microphone that was going to listen in on them. Clearly, that was not what we were doing. We are transmitting a key that can be matched but not reversed."

But, keeping in time with technology trends, we have to ask ourselves, what's the next step? It wouldn't be a huge leap to link eavesdropping technology into use with web cameras. And if so, spyware could take on a far more literal sense. So maybe we had it wrong in the beginning. The new saying: "Google is watching you."

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