Matthew R. Perry

Big Brother and Google are Listening To You (John Whitehead)

In Religious Liberties, War on Terror on September 6, 2006 at 6:40 pm

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Big Brother and Google Are Listening to You
By John W. Whitehead
September 6, 2006

“The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it.”
—George Orwell, 1984

In George Orwell’s vision of the future, Big Brother was always watching and the Thought Police were always listening. Little did Orwell realize when his futuristic book was published in 1949 that his conception of an eavesdropping technology would one day become a reality.

Yet if Google succeeds in its pursuit of a new Internet technology that would enable your computer to “listen” to what’s being watched on your TV, that reality may happen sooner than you like. The prototype software for the ambient-audio identification technology, which was described in a research paper presented by Google officials earlier this year, would be a boon for marketers and advertisers.

According to Technology Review, the new technology “uses a computer’s built-in microphone to listen to the sounds in a room. It then filters each five-second snippet of sound to pick out audio from a TV, reduces the snippet to a digital ‘fingerprint,’ searches an Internet server for a matching fingerprint from a pre-recorded show, and, if it finds a match, displays ads, chat rooms, or other information related to that snippet on the user’s computer.” In other words, the “fingerprint” is used by Google to match Internet advertisements that would appeal to you, the computer user, based on your TV-viewing preferences.

The idea is that Google would be able to attract more advertisers by providing them with direct access to consumers’ wants. As the Technology Review article explains, “Nicole Kidman fans, for instance, might enjoy knowing what dress she’s wearing on a broadcast of ‘Extra!’ or where they can buy a similar outfit. Or ads for Cooper Minis might appear whenever the car showed up in TV rebroadcast of The Italian Job.”

Recognizing that this new technology will cause a flood of privacy concerns, Google insists that the only information revealed from your listening computer would be your TV-watching preferences. In fact, according to Google, the “fingerprinting technology” used to monitor your TV watching makes it impossible to eavesdrop on other sounds in the room such as personal conversations. But do they really think we are that naïve?

Google’s track record when it comes to protecting freedom has not been all that stellar. Lest we forget, it was Google that agreed to censor its search services in China in order to gain greater access to China’s fast-growing market. However, this agreement to restrict access to thousands of sensitive terms and websites means that Google is collaborating with an authoritarian regime to further repress the Chinese people.

The reality is that Google’s listening apparatus is merely the latest in a series of yet-to-be revealed invasive snooping devices. Indeed, using a personal computer to listen in on your TV habits is only a small step away from audio software that can record your living room small talk or, even worse, webcams that would videotape everything that goes on in the comfort of your own home.

Make no mistake about it: this is a privacy nightmare. And it is especially true in light of AOL’s recent security breakdown that resulted in the accidental release of more than 600,000 of its members’ search records.

Moreover, it is widely believed that existing Internet software already puts Google and other search engines in your living room today. As Technology Review points out, “Google probably already knows what search terms you use, what Web pages you’re viewing, and what you write about in your email.” Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Watch, an observer of the various search engine providers, confirms this. He notes that search engines retain records detailing all the websites that people visit, along with the search terms they use to find the websites. Even more troubling, these search terms and websites are directly traceable to you, the user.

Yet despite the modern capabilities of search engines to delve into Americans’ psyches by monitoring their Internet search habits, recording sounds from one’s living room raises the bar. This is especially true considering the skill of modern computer hackers. “Pretty soon the security industry is going to find a way to hijack the Google feed and use it for full on espionage,” one commentator observed, adding, “we should think that ‘spyware’ might take on an extra meaning if someone less scrupulous decided on a similar piece of software.”

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this technology is that it comes at a time when government agencies are attempting to find as many ways as possible to eavesdrop on citizens, including demanding the search records of Internet users. For example, in 2005, the White House attempted to subpoena the search records of millions of Americans, including those used by Google. And, of course, this is in addition to government attempts to bypass laws designed to protect Americans’ private phone calls.

In an era marked by stealthy and vaguely ominous attempts to detect and stamp out perceived terrorists, the government will only become more aggressive in its efforts to eavesdrop on Americans through their phones and computers.

So the next time you start flipping through television channels, you may need to worry more about who is listening in on you than what you are watching.

WC: 884

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Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.

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