Google on Your Shoulder

Article by Robert Epstein, Ph.D.

Lest you think my imagination has run wild, please consider: In 2016, Google was granted a U.S. patent — one of several of this sort — entitled “Privacy-Aware Personalized Content for the Smart Home,” which secures the methodology for intelligently interpreting what its microphones and cameras are observing in your home. If your son has left his T-shirt on the floor, and the camera can see an image of Will Smith on it, Google might let your family know when the next Will Smith film is coming out. If Google’s microphone hears your kids whispering in a way that detects “mischief,” it might alert you or recommend a good family counselor.

How far can they take this? Can they draw conclusions about how good a parent you are, about whether you’ve been cheating on your boyfriend or spouse, about your favorite sex positions and toys? Can they rank your social and economic standing? Of course they can.

Another patent, entitled “Smart-Automation System That Suggests or Automatically Implements Selected Household Policies Based on Sensed Observations,” turns the surveillance data into a means for controlling systems in your house: for sounding alarms, locking and unlocking doors, deducing when you’ve gone on vacation, turning the lights off on your kids when they use “foul language,” and for warning that cheeky babysitter of yours to send her boyfriend home now.

Do you trust this Silicon Valley company to be this close to your kids? You shouldn’t, because those same policies you set for your children can also be set, according to that second patent, “based upon certain inputs from remote vendors/facilitators/regulators/etc.” Google has a long history of sharing our personal data with a wide variety of such entities. They even reserve that right under their creepy Terms of Service, to which we all agree as long as we are using a Google application — even if we don’t know we’re using a Google application.

Google wants us to believe the massive amount of personal data they’re collecting about us and our children will never, ever be misused. But we’ve seen how easily massive amounts of data can end up in the wrong hands — in the hands of election riggers at Cambridge Analytica, for example. It’s not just retailers and banks that get hacked; every major tech company has also been hacked. Through hacking or sharing, even those silly, crazy things you said in the privacy of your home but didn’t really mean might end up in the hands of the FBI or the TSA. Wait! Did I just say “privacy?” What was I thinking?

The home that Google envisions — no, the home that Google has already created when we weren’t paying attention — is an Orwellian wet dream, in which the walls have ears and the thermostat is definitely listening. And those are just the big moves Google has made. Densely packed between each of those moves is the acquiring of multitudes of businesses, intellectual property and technologies — all for the purpose of extracting and interpreting more and more of your personal data.

And those are the moves we know about. For a company this steeped in secrecy and surveillance, with close ties to the NSA and CIA, I’m sure the list we don’t know about is much longer.

People occasionally tell me I exaggerate such matters. But my research over the past seven years has put me in an oddly ironic position when it comes to exaggeration: No matter what I tell you about the threat that Google-and-the-Gang pose to our families and societies, I am, it turns out, grossly understating the seriousness of the problem.

Bear that in mind as we now move from the comfort of your own home (still feeling comfortable there?) to the sanctity of the voting booth.

Google in the Voting Booth

In June 2016, a few months before the U.S. electorate — or least our archaic Electoral College — selected Donald J. Trump to be our president, a small news outlet called Sourcefed released a dramatic seven-minute video that claimed Google was deliberately suppressing negative search suggestions for candidate Hillary Clinton (such as “Hillary Clinton crimes,” which Google Trends showed people were searching for in large numbers) while suggesting only positive terms (such as “Hillary Clinton crime reform,” which Google Trends showed virtually no one was searching for). Google was not suppressing negative search terms for people like Donald Trump (“Donald Trump racist”) and Bernie Sanders (“Bernie Sanders socialist”).

People trade security for convenience. Anyone who has ever used a password or flown since post-911 knows that. So how much will we pay Google for making our lives easier?

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