Tuesday, 22 May 2018 10:48

Google's vision of social engineering outed in company video Featured

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Google appears to have visions of controlling people in the future through the information that it slurps up every day, judging by a leaked 2016 video titled The Selfish Ledger.

The website The Verge obtained the video last week and described it as showing a concept for how total data collection could reshape society.

When the video surfaced, the company was quick to disavow it, dismissing it as a thought experiment and “not related to any current or future products".

But patent applications filed by Google show exactly the same thinking that lies behind the data collection proposal outlined in The Selfish Ledger.

The video was authored by Nick Foster, head of design at X — formerly Google X — and a co-founder of the Near Future Lab.

Shared internally at Google, it visualises a future where Google pushes users into following the company's goals, custom-prints personalised devices to slurp up even more data and attempts to use the populations of countries in directions that it determines will solve problems like poverty and disease.

A Google spokesman told The Verge after the initial report ran on 17 May: "“We understand if this is disturbing -- it is designed to be. This is a thought-experiment by the Design team from years ago that uses a technique known as ‘speculative design’ to explore uncomfortable ideas and concepts in order to provoke discussion and debate. It’s not related to any current or future products.”

But two days later, The Verge wrote that it had been pointed to a patent application titled Detecting and correcting potential errors in user behavior, which mirrored this kind of ambition.

A second patent application, also from 2015, titled Guided purchasing via smartphone detailed how a digital shopping assistant would function when a user found something he or she wanted to buy.

It would "determine an order for the tasks within the associated sequence of tasks based at least in part on information gathered from consumers who have performed some or all of the tasks in the associated sequence of tasks", which app pears to be exactly what is outlined in the video.

The second patent also details how advertisements are fed into the latter part of the shopping process, with the choice of advertiser based on bids, the same method that Google uses to display ads on Web pages displaying products today.

Journalist Vlad Savov wrote: "The thing that has most stood out to me, in witnessing the strongly negative reaction to The Selfish Ledger, has been how few people truly understand the extent of data collection that Google already engages in. The Selfish Ledger is not a radical departure from Google’s practices of today, it’s just a conceptual video taking them to their logical extreme."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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