x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Seek, and ye shall be data-mined

Google is an inspirational company, but it and companies like it must be held accountable for how they use the personal information they collect.

Next month marks an anniversary of sorts for the internet giant Google. Fifteen years ago, on July 8, 1998, Larry Page, the company’s co-founder, is said to have brought the term “googling” into our collective consciousness, using the word in a short memo that ended “have fun and keep googling”. Not that the corporation is likely to commemorate this auspicious birthday.

Google disavowed “googling” a decade ago, believing the generic use of its trademark could damage its brand, although the term’s subsequent passage into the lingua franca (and the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006) means the corporation is pretty much stuck with it, come what may.

This vignette neatly encapsulates Google’s high-speed journey from obscurity in the late 1990s to utter ubiquity sometime shortly after the turn of the century. Where once the brand seemed concerned it might become lost in a forest of consumer choices and competing services – AOL, AltaVista, Lycos, Yahoo! etc – now one cannot imagine an internet search that doesn’t involve googling. When was the last time you asked Jeeves about anything?

The subject of what Google does with all the information it collects when we use its services has recently been put into sharp focus by Edward Snowden, the former CIA worker and NSA contractor turned whistle-blower. Snowden told The Guardian newspaper last week that he felt compelled to spill the beans because he did not want to live in a world “where everything I do and say is recorded”.

This seems to be a 20th-century response to a 21st-century problem. Using online services and having a digital identity, however slight, is a fact of our lives and makes it next to impossible for one to operate below the radar.

Furthermore, putting aside any Orwellian visions of “Big Brother”, few of us, I suspect, are really completely unhappy about data collection. It is what that information might be used for and by whom that truly irks.

In an interview with The National earlier this year, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, the co-author of the new and largely indispensable book about the world we live in, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think, said “the privacy issue is a dark side of big data. The way that we protect privacy is not working.

“If I collect your personal information but can’t tell you what purposes I am using it for – that is not consent, or at least not informed consent. That kind of challenge will become starker and require us to think about novel ways to protect privacy and to make data users accountable for how they use data.”

The challenge in the big-data era and for those brands that make most from collating and storing information, is to begin a conversation about the sea of data they all collect about us, what they intend to use it for, what it might be used for and to be less opaque about terms and conditions of operation.

Google remains an inspirational company, as witnessed by the unveiling of the first phase of its Loon project last week in New Zealand, which uses high-altitude balloons to bring reliable internet coverage to places that were previously off the grid. The project employs algorithms to work out where the balloons are best sited to provide maximum coverage and then motors the devices into place.

If Loon proves effective – and the project’s leader calls it a “huge moon shot”, so nothing is assured – it will increase network penetration and lessen expansion costs by reducing the need to lay fibre-optic cables into remote areas of the world.

There could hardly be a better example of Google’s positive and transformative work. The issue now is for the world of big data to become equally democratic and enriching.

nmarch@thenational.ae