David Behrens: Being stalked by Google may not be such a bad thing after all

Is Google a force for good or not?
Is Google a force for good or not?
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LAST month, I walked 45 miles and spent 44 hours in the car, and if anyone wanted to know where I was, they’d have found me in a Wetherspoon’s on the Wirral.

I’m not obsessed with tracking my movements in this way, but Google is. An email drops into my inbox on the first of the month, telling me where I went, what I did and how long it took me to get back.

I didn’t ask them to stalk me in this way. Or perhaps I did by having ticked the wrong box on a form somewhere. Either way, they now know more about me than I do. I’d quite forgotten half of what they reported back to me.

This would be an issue had I been jetting away to midnight trysts with a glamorous movie star, having told Mrs B that I was putting the cat out. Sadly for me, that’s not been the case – and if it had, with my luck, the film star would have been Lassie.

Yet the extent to which Google and the other giant internet companies are able to monitor our movements is bound to shape the way that many of us go about our business as we move into the next decade.

George Orwell’s vision of 1984 will finally come to pass 40 years later than he thought.

Is this a problem? If you’re trying to cover your tracks, for one reason or another, most certainly.

“Where were you on the night of the 12th, Mr Smith?”

“I was at home watching Coronation Street, officer.”

“Google says you were in a Toby Carvery in Tadcaster. You had the big platter and you went back for seconds.”

You would be, as they say in such circles, bang to rights, and properly so.

But for the rest of us, pursuing an agenda that is neither criminal nor seriously immoral, the capacity of corporations to exploit the satellite trackers built into our phones and then share the details with whoever they please, limited only by their own arbitrary conditions of use, is a significant infringement on our personal freedoms.

I ought to find this concerning, but I prefer to take the view that not being able to go anywhere without someone else knowing about it is potentially a powerful deterrent – one that could influence and improve the behaviour of society’s basest elements, for the benefit of the rest of us.

Consider this: a generation ago, teams of police officers had to search for weeks or months through forests of paper card indexes to produce evidence that Google can now generate in an instant. Isn’t that worth the loss of a civil liberty?

The people I feel sorry for are private detectives. Times must have been hard for them since the divorce laws were relaxed, and with Google now doing by satellite whatever it was that they used to get up to on street corners under the brim of a fedora, Raymond Chandler would be reduced to writing about Philip Marlowe going on his holidays.

But what about the capacity of sinister forces to misuse and manipulate the information that is collected?

This became an issue earlier this year when Facebook was supposed to have used the personal data of its members in order to try to influence the way they voted.

I’m not here to defend any of the social media platforms: their capacity to reduce human communication to 280 characters and a sad face icon seriously undermines Darwin’s thoughts on evolution.

But while their misuse of information about us invades our privacy, it does not have the capacity to do us serious harm.

I do know that there are insidious governmental interests at play, and not just our own. But honestly, what use to Russia is the knowledge that I made two trips to Leeds Art Gallery and one to the Museum of Liverpool in the last two months?

Unless society’s goalposts are moved to such an extent that visiting a museum becomes seen as some sort of McCarthyist travesty of subversion, I’m not going to worry about it.

Besides, I don’t trust our Government to act on the information. I’m not saying it’s dishonest, just incapable. I’ve yet to meet a civil servant who could open the lid on a laptop.

So I’ll go about my business this week unconcerned that I’m being watched. And just to give Mrs B a head start, I’ll be in Wetherspoon’s.

david.behrens@ypn.co.uk