Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, has described his company’s policy: “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”
Schmidt was talking to The Atlantic about the possibility of a Google implant – a chip under your skin that would track you and provide easy web access. That, Schmidt said, was probably over ‘the creepy line’.
However, he followed that by saying: “With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”
Some might argue that that is over the line too but Google will only read your mind “with your permission”, so that’s a relief.
Schmidt has a history of attention-grabbing and quotable statements about Google’s increasing, err, creep into our lives. There was the time that he said: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Recently he has suggested that young people might in future change their names so as to escape their Google-able past.
Last month he muttered cryptically about having “other ways” to get access to Facebook’s data should the social network decline to let Google index it.
Schmidt’s comments often sound like those of a man speaking off the cuff, and perhaps saying a little more than he should. Maybe that’s what they are but I’m not sure. I spent some time with Schmidt earlier this year and since then I’ve heard him repeat in other interviews – almost word-for-word – answers that he gave me. I think Schmidt has thought very carefully about these issues and he’s very clear on the message he wants to give.
Google makes some wonderful products. I use many of them, including Gmail, Google Reader and, of course, search. However, their attitude towards our private data is a cause for concern, not least because Google tends to make its services ‘opt-out’, rather than ‘opt-in’, which means that the permission Schmidt talks about will be given implicitly.
While Google is honest about wanting to “get right up to the creepy line”, it would also suit them if that line could be pushed ever further back. Schmidt’s comments play a tiny role in helping that process along. I would bet that in a decade the line will have been pushed even further. In the meantime, though, there will be a lot more court challenges and protests as Google slowly gets its way.
It’s tempting to suggest that Eric Schmidt should keep quiet instead of stirring people up every few months but I think he knows exactly what he’s doing.