Jul 4th, 2012

When Google previewed Android 4.1 Jelly Bean for the first time to a room full of developers and press at their annual I/O gathering, one of the features that instantly jumped out was Google Now. “Google Now gets you just the right information at just the right time,” reads the new service’s official landing page, and it does so by learning the browsing, search, and location habits of its users. Google’s full pitch of the new feature goes on to state,

“It tells you today’s weather before you start your day, how much traffic to expect before you leave for work, when the next train will arrive as you’re standing on the platform, or your favorite team’s score while they’re playing. And the best part? All of this happens automatically. Cards appear throughout the day at the moment you need them.”

Exciting, futuristic stuff, but it does not come without the shadow of another futuristic scenario trailing it. The idea of a “Big Brother” was popularized by George Orwell’s novel 1984. Published years earlier in 1949, the book examines a future dystopian society in which a totalitarian regime watches over the every move of its citizens with Thought Police punishing any person straying from the ideology of the ruling party. Now, we’re not saying Google is out to punish or undermine those with points of view differing from their own, but the massive amount of data the company collects and plans to leverage with Google Now is reason enough to step back and ask a simple question: how much data are we comfortable sharing with Google?

In all fairness to the tech giant built on search and funded by advertising dollars, the landing page for Google Now makes it very clear that all features of Now and the amount of data it will collect are on an opt-in basis. Google makes an honest effort to be transparent in the information it collects on its users, and, after a few missteps, is quick to point out that things like location data are only collected with the user’s consent. But for Google Now to function properly the service will need to track a user in many ways, and at the very least we must wonder in what other ways Google will use this data.

Google Now’s sports card

In its initial release, Google Now will be fairly limited in what it does and does not offer its users, but Google will undoubtedly look to add to it as time passes. Its goal is to be as much a personal assistant as Apple’s Siri, but to do so in a smart and unobtrusive way. Instead of having to ask your phone a question (thought you certainly can), Now will provide the answer as if by reading your mind. But what sort of things could Google Now provide that might be less desirable to users?

While it doesn’t appear to be in the immediate plans for Google Now, we have to wonder how long it will be before Google starts inserting advertisement cards right next to useful items like sports scores and traffic info. Drive past several Starbucks shops on the way to work? Google could slyly suggest you stop in for a cup of coffee. Looking rainy outside? How about an add urging you to visit LL Bean and pick up a raincoat or umbrella? It’s the same sort of advertising we already see on Google’s search page, and it could become even more targeted when combined with Google Now.

And then, of course, comes the question of what else might Google do with data collected for the purposes of Now. We don’t believe Google would ever hold any sinister intentions like those of Orwell’s totalitarian Big Brother, but it is at least a little scary to think that many of our personal interests, questions, and private concerns have found their way into that blank search field on at least a few occasions. We have all queried a health problem or have felt the need to search out something strange or embarrassing due to our natural human curiosity. Now those strings of text are not so private when it comes to building Google’s next big thing.

Will they ever amount to more than a few lines in a gigantic database of similar search terms? Probably not, but in Google’s future computers look to become a thinking, almost living extension of our own brains, answering questions we haven’t asked based on our habits and tendencies, pushing information on us even when we don’t want it, all in an effort to make our lives “better” by keeping us jacked into Google’s network of web services and advertising. And soon they want us to wear it on our face, never more than a glance away in the form of Project Glass. Am I being a bit paranoid? Probably.

Do I plan to use Google Now? Definitely (if it lives up to the hype). I’m all for technology attempting to improve productivity. But in the back of my mind I will always be wondering just what is happening behind the scenes in a dark server room or in some office at Google’s Mountain View campus. Wondering, is my data truly safe?