John Battelle (whose blog is a must-read) has posted a scenario worth pondering:
There is a ton of information about all of us that we willingly (social networks, registration data, search history, etc.) and sometimes unwillingly (clickstream data) leave, forever, on third party servers.
Now, we may trust those third parties not to mess with our data, and not to do evil things, and for the most part, I am quite sure they won't -- if they do and they get caught, they'd be crucified, and the competition is just one click away. (...) But Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, eBay, Amazon, etc. are not small companies. They are made up of thousands of individuals, a few of whom just might be, well, a bit off balance.
Imagine that an engineer at a major Internet company decides he has a thing for young blond women (...) and has access to pretty much all the information he wants on all the young blond women that use his company's services near where he lives (by zip, keyword, etc.).
(...) A series of unsolved rapes begins, all of which involve young, pretty blond women.
(...) The police, hungry for any lead, obtain a search warrant for the engineer's home, and (...) they take his home computer (...) unearthing the trove of information. (...) The national and international media absolutely go batshit.
(...) And the main hook of the story? How easy it was for the killer to identify, track, and manipulate his victims because of the data he had access to at his workplace. A privacy nightmare! Who KNEW that we were so exposed?!
Notice the keyword "forever" ("leave, forever, on third party servers"). In a subsequent reply to a reader's comment, Battelle added:
Perhaps I should have named the company in the scenario, and the press subsequently called the story the "Google Rapist" or somesuch. Imagine what happens to Google's brand when the entire world, for a period of months, thinks of "rape and killings" when they think of Google, and think it all happened because Google knows too much about you...
Very intriguing scenario indeed: it would make for a great ESE movie (as in Evil Search Engine movie: watch out for this new category of thrillers to start playing at a theatre near you soon).
(John's full post; full disclosure: John is my former CEO at the Industry Standard magazine).
Now, reverse his premises, and out comes a totally different script. In keeping with John's naming convention, and since it's everyone's favorite, let's use Google: remembering however that what follows is fiction (albeit fact-based), and it could be rewritten around any of the Internet's "big ones".
John writes that we may trust the Googles and Yahoos "not to mess with our data and not to do evil things", because if they do, they "would be crucified", so he builds his credibly scary scenario around one of their employees going "a bit off balance".
But imagine that the whole company not only goes off balance: it is designed to go off balance at some point in the future.
Imagine that all the idealism Sergey and Larry infused into the odd letter to shareholders they appended to the Google's IPO prospectus ("don't be evil") was just a front.
The scenario could go like this.
It's a sunny morning in 2010. In a London neighborhood kids stroll to school, shops open, executives turn on their computers, commuters exit the tube a national politician is having breakfast on the veranda and checking his voicemail – to find a very angry message from a woman he slept with a few times a few years back, when both were already married, and who now lives in Moscow. "How could you!" she screams into the phone, adding an hysterical outburst filled with invectives about her husband finding their old e-mails on the Internet, or something like that. At the same time a staffer at a big multinational, carrying a laptop, hurries towards his boss' office and walks past the assistant and in without knocking: "Sorry sir but we have a problem", he says hastily opening his laptop on the desk and pointing to the screen, "I just found the blueprints for our new device and the financial projections are out on the Internet". A few miles from there, a writer does a "vanity search" on her name, and up comes the still unfinished manuscript of her next book, there for everyone to download and read, and the second result is a nasty e-mail she wrote two years ago to her agent complaining about her publisher; scrolling down she's horrified to find personal documents, pictures, transcripts of old intimate IM chats with a flirty Italian journalist. At the Foreign Office meanwhile, alerts are inexplicably pouring in related to classified reports on international security matters "having been leaked" and ending up in many foreign hands (and in those of tabloid reporters). And other similar events.
By mid-morning it has become clear to everyone that something very nasty has happened: suddenly vast layers of personal privacy and corporate and governmental secrecy seem to have been peeled off, and a global panic is mounting. How did e-mails and private documents of any kind, sensitive corporate data, classified information, recordings of voice calls, intimate pictures, the stuff of parallel lives, of commercial competition and of institutional hypocrisy, end up on the Internet, for all to see and to download?
When America starts waking up, a couple of hours later, the panic goes global (more scenes of personal and organizational alarm here as discovery of private and sensitive information online continues, long-forgotten correspondence threads reappear, personal duplicities are unmasked, corporate and political secrets revealed, security holes exposed). The national security agencies piece together an explanation: it's Google. More than any of its competitors, for over a decade Google has been amassing unimaginable amounts of explicit information (the stuff search systems find online: biographies, maps, addresses, personal websites, blog posts and comments, pictures, family links, political leanings, governmental documents, corporate information, newspaper articles, and so on, and the stuff Google has added, think of scanned books). This includes plenty of things that should have been out of Google's reach, but were not (files negligently left unprotected on servers etc).
Soon, a darker picture comes into focus. Over the years, unbeknownst by its users, Google has also been creating a colossal store of implicit information: the footprints and mindprints that people leave behind when using online services (personal registration data, social networks links and behaviour, clickstreams, search interests, lists of people they "googled", of products they "froogled": the stuff Battelle calls "the database of intentions") as well as the texts of e-mail messages that went through Gmail, the recordings of phonecalls and transcripts of IM sessions carried by GoogleTalk, the contents of private and corporate hard-disks that GoogleDesktop "searched" (and sent back to the mothership), all the bits and bytes that have travelled through Google's wi-fi hotspots in San Francisco and other cities, not to mention all the personal documents that many people "backed up" on Gmail taking advantage of the generous multi-megabytes free storage allowance, and so on. It was a gigantically complex computational effort, but an absurdly easy crime to commit, because Google was realizing its sinister plan under the best cover ever: providing really useful services to users, for free.
And that morning of 2010, Google opened it up, made all those exabytes of information public. It's just a fraction of the world's information, of course: Google is only one of several big Internet players, and not everyone uses Gmail or Orkut. But because of Google's centrality to the way hundreds of millions of people use the Internet, it is enough to subvert the world as we know it. And because of the still-significant inequality in Internet usage, there is way more information about America and Europe on Google's servers than about the rest of the world. Suddenly millions of people are exposed naked, in a more-than-literal way, their virtual life meticulously recorded for years, and so are millions of public and private organizations. Chaos takes hold in personal relationships, local matters, corporate activities, diplomatic affairs, security issues. Everybody seems to be fighting with everybody. There is an epidemic of suicides. Blackmail is rampant. Lawsuits exponential. The stock markets, confronted with a flood of revelations about listed companies, close. Businesses call for governmental intervention.
In a tense meeting in the sit-room the NSA suggests first to temporary shut down the root servers and "block" the Internet so that it can be "cleaned up", just to realize that such action would bring the whole world to a standstill. The Googleplex in Mountain View is sealed by police; FBI and government engineers physically shut down Google's servers one by one – but server farms are located all over the world, and the information is mirrored there. The US government takes then the unprecedented step of ordering ICANN to delete all the Google and Google-related domains from the root zone, but the process is slow because a couple of years before, yielding to international pressure, the Americans accepted more global oversight over ICANN – and it now quickly becomes apparent that behind the procedural difficulties they are putting up, China and other countries are not willing to let go immediately of this unique chance to skim off Google everything they can about Western governments, businesses, and citizens.
Not to mention that it will take anyway a few more hours before all the root servers can be updated with no-Google domain lists. And in the meantime everyone is very busy searching and copying: for if they're horrified about what's out there on them and don't trust Internet companies anymore, everyone is also very eager to search under the skin of neighbors, colleagues, siblings, competitors, husbands and wives,...
The blogosphere goes nuts, the news media too. Mostly with "disclosures" on people and organizations, and "crucifying" Google ("Big Brother" and such). Some try to make sense of what happens to a society when suddenly all personal and private information becomes public and transparent and searchable and retrievable and forwardable. Others remember that back in 2005 already, Google went ballistic over a news.com report about the risks of "the information that Google collects and doesn't make public". Columnists write "full disclosure" columns totally redundant with what googling their name brings up. Two maintain that they had said so and that's the reason why they never used a computer. One points out "the unreserved foolishness of using Gmail (or Hotmail of YahooMail for that matter) for personal correspondence from the office so that there would be no traces of it left in the corporate mailing systems". Conspiracy theorists have a field day. Sergey (Mihailovich) Brin was born in Moscow, so the old KGB thing is brought up by a Republican Senator: was he "planted" there by the Soviet dark powers that be? Is he a kind of "Manchurian entrepreneur"? Both he and Larry Page are Jewish... (etc). Someone evokes "The Net", the 1995 film where Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock's character) is stripped of her identity, but what is happening here is the opposite scenario: this is not about deleting an identity, it's about magnifying all possible identities to gigapixel resolution, with more devastating (and globally subversive) effects.
Of course Google is dead as a business. Sergey and Larry and Eric Schmidt are wanted. But does that matter? In a few days, after patiently preparing for years, Google has really transformed the world in the most unpredictable (really?) and irreversible way. Maybe, in a mocking sort of fashion, they even meant to forewarn us when they wrote the first sentence of the IPO letter: "Google is not a conventional company".
(The scenario continues: a note coming out of a ...fax takes the story in a totally unexpected direction; motives are gradually revealed; and so on).
(Let me plagiarize John here: for anyone in Hollywood reading this, the screenplay is in the mail... - and thanks to him for the link)
UPDATE - readers comments:
Marco: Would this be entirely bad? If the playing field would actually be fair (unlikely, but just imagine) and the same amount of information was available on everybody and every organization. Wouldn't people have to think about their actions much more and consider the consequences? Without being able to cover up ones mistakes, being held accountable for ones actions, wouldn't we live a better live? Alright now, I 'll stop. There are plenty of negatives about this scenario and there are plenty of occasions when secrecy is crucial. However, not all is bad and there are probably some good things in a scenario like this as well.
June: What if the friendly search engine revealed a sinister under-belly? What if it reneged on its corporate mantra, "Don't Be Evil." Such ponderings are fueling one of the most entertaining memes in the blogosphere: The Evil Search Engine Scenario. TEDGlobal producer Bruno Giussani and The Search author John Battelle have been swapping Hollywood-worthy stories of a world in which Google switches sides.
Dino: You're forgetting one other vital fact. Eric Schmidt used to work for a Utah-based company. Forget the Russians, man, it's the ultimate temple conspiracy to expose the immoral underbelly of Sodom!
And more following the "comments" link below.