For the past couple of years I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with Google. It began with not being thrilled that I had to sign in with a Google (or Google-owned entity) account to post a comment on something I’ve read. The more I learned about Google, the less I wanted to support creating a history for every website visited, every purchase made, every email, every picture taken, every person I’ve met, every aspect of my on-line life and — through linking known associates — extrapolating the rest of my life as well.
The nature of who we are is to a great extent defined by the people we love, our families, where we worship, friends we keep, people we meet, work we do, interests we pursue, words we write, actions we take, places we go, pictures we take, videos we watch, social groups we join, objects we purchase, choices we make, and aspirations we have. All of these manifestations of who you are, including your credit, driving, education and medical history, are found in the records of your life on-line.
No matter how you choose to justify the “convenience” of using Google to search, for mail, calendars, document generation, or any other of their products, the price which you pay is the record of who you were, are now, and based on that data: who you will be in the future.
So – all the times that you have been watching YouTube videos, surfing the web, using your browser to participate in social media, write mail, or use other websites, even though you are not signed into your Gmail account, your user history has been logged and recorded by Google and that data paired with the data in your Gmail and Google document accounts.
Staggering, isn’t it?
He who controls the past controls the present. He who controls the present controls the past. — George Orwell, 1984
Two years later that is no longer true: Google can — and does — track users whether they are signed in or not. Couple this knowledge with recent Facebook experiments in manipulating user experiences and Hearst’s role in the Spanish-American War becomes trivial. Below is an excerpt from an article published in Forbes:
Facebook conducted a massive psychological experiment on 689,003 users, manipulating their news feeds to assess the effects on their emotions. The details of the experiment were published in an article entitled “Experimental Evidence Of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks” published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The short version is, Facebook has the ability to make you feel good or bad, just by tweaking what shows up in your news feed.
In 2011 Google‘s search engine was working on shaping news content based upon past history to build a news page reflecting “user intent.” At that time in order for this feature to work, users had to be signed in to their Google accounts. As a simple test, if you compare news.google.com between your computer and another person’s you will see that this is no longer true, even if you are not signed in: the news will be “customized” to your viewing history.
A recent Wired article by Robert McMillan reveals the presence of “shadow profiles” which exist even if you are not on Facebook.
Our age of big data was beyond George Orwell’s nightmare view of society. Today his pithy aphorism might be amended to, “Control the past and you can control the present. Control the past and the present and you can control the future.”