Monday, August 08, 2005

Googled! By The Data Paparazzi

One of the smarter things to do once you find out the name of someone you will be meeting for the first time is to “Google” them. You can find out any number of things – from articles they may have written, companies they’ve worked for, places they’ve lived, political or community service causes they’ve contributed to, hobbies.

In today’s New York Times, Saul Hansell reports that Google has recently penalized some good googling by CNET’s Elinor Mills by refusing to talk on the record to CNET until July 2006, a 1-year ban. The reporter used Google to learn details about Google’s low-key CEO Erik Schmidt, things like where he lives, political candidates he’s raised funds for, the fact that he’s a licensed pilot, etc.

Google’s position is that the CNET article was a violation of Schmidt’s privacy. CNET counters that the article contained nothing but publicly available information culled from Google’s search results, available on the internet, and linked in the article.

Now it seems obvious that if the information is readily available on the internet (some of it culled from other publications) that CNET can not have violated Schmidt’s privacy. For some facts perhaps the case can be made that the original source violated his privacy – but the report itself is really just an example of meta-reporting and didn’t involve traditional journalistic “tricks” like interviews to get the information on Mr. Schmidt.

In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, there has been a great deal of discussion about this issue since the government made property assessment information, which has always been publicly available by going to the recorder of deeds and requesting it, available over its web site. Do you want to know where Mario Lemieux lives and how much he paid for his house, how big is the lot, what about the square footage? All of this information is freely available by typing his name into the easy to use interface.

My opinion is that most people may not have realized that this amount of information was available about them. Then the internet comes along and removes the friction of obtaining the information – suddenly I may find this out not because I need it, but just for fun because it’s easy. Not only that, all of these individual data points can now be combined to tell a story that in total might be more revealing than we want it to be -- and leaves the CEO of Google victimized by his own tool. We are now all stalkable by the data paparazzi.

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