Google is watching you!

Gazing up at a giant projector screen in Google's futuristic headquarters in Silicon Valley, California, I am being given a unique insight into the collective preoccupations of a billion human brains.

Google is watching you!

By and large, it seems, we are a pretty trivial, celebrity-obsessed lot.

For right at this moment, mankind is hungry for facts about: Michael Jackson; golf balls; Spanish words; Captain Nemo; Britney Spears; surfwear; cheese recipes; Kurt Cobain; and, for some reason, Carol Barnes, the former ITN newsreader.

This huge, constantly-scrolling screen, which shows people's online searches as they are happening (but with the lewd ones filtered out), is only one of many amazing peculiarities of the so-called "Googleplex", the sprawling, steel and glass home of the world's favourite source of information.

Picture a place that combines the laid-back ambience of an IKEA-designed university campus with a disquieting hint of The Prisoner - the 1960s cult TV series centred around a sinister and secretive commune - and you begin to imagine what it's like inside the rarified preserve of the Googlers, as the company's 16,000 staff call themselves.

In Googleland, no one wears a suit and tie, works fixed hours, or sits rigidly at a boring old desk.

Instead, shaggy-haired computer geeks play pool or darts as they ponder some unfathomable programming code, and - frighteningly - young executives wearing ripped jeans recline on multi-coloured beanbags while discussing billion-dollar projects.

Staff are encouraged to bring their pets and children to work.

They ride around the campus on bicycles, and nourish their brains with healthy gourmet meals and a bottomless supply of snacks, all handed out free.

Then they burn off the calories with a stress-busting, team-building game of volleyball in the leafy quad or a swim in one of two training pools.

Another thing you notice as you stroll around the Googleplex is that almost everyone is smiling in the manner of someone who knows something you don't.

This is slightly disconcerting.

Perhaps it is simply that working here really is such "incredible fun", as one of the evangelical,

oh-so-nice PR team showing me around - and making sure I don't uncover any trade secrets - would have me believe.

Then again, maybe everyone is grinning because there are so many millionaires in a company founded less than a decade ago in a rented garage by two nerdy computer students, and which now has a staggering market capitalisation of $216 billion - more than all the other dotcom companies combined.

Thanks to a generous share option in their salary package, hundreds of employees have become fabulously wealthy, having seen Google's stock rise by a staggering 900 per cent in just eight years.

The newest member of the "Googles of Money" club is Employee Number 41, Bonnie Brown, who was recruited as the company's in-house masseuse on £225 a week back in 1999 and has just pocketed tens of millions by selling her shares.

Such is the perceived magic of the firm that David Cameron has visited twice in two years.

This week, the Tory leader was revealed to have been flown there, at his host's expense, to deliver a glowing eulogy at the recent Google Zeitgeist conference.

But then, Cameron is by no means the only big player to be entranced by Google.

This is a corporate colossus so ultra-cool that Richard Branson or U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama are likely to be seen munching tofu in the communal canteen, and Hollywood stars rouknowledgetinely drive 450 miles up the Pacific Coast Highway just to hang out here.

Another Google-lover is former U.S. presidential candidate-turned-environment campaigner Al Gore, who will doubtless congratulate the 34-year-old founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin following this week's announcement of a multi-million dollar research programme to find a green energy source to replace fossil fuels.

There is no doubting that, like the company's feel-good workplace, attention-catching projects such as these help enhance Google's altruistic image.

It's an image that has grown up with Page and Brin since their combined genius came together at Stanford University to devise a unique "algorithm" - or computer formula - which, at a keystroke, dragged the process of computerised searches out of the Dark Ages.

From the earliest days of their incredible rise, Page, the son of a computer science pioneer, and Brin, a Moscow-born èmigrè whose father is a maths professor, appear to have regarded the vast profits that have accrued from their remarkable invention as almost incidental to their project.

Rather, they proclaimed themselves to be on a "democratic" mission to gather all of the world's in one place (the first time it has been attempted since the library of Alexandria in the 3rd century BC) and make it freely available to everyone.

Mindful that information can be used for good or bad, they devised a simple core mantra which, they claim, sums up their philosophy: Do no evil.

Among a great many netsurfers, therefore, the brilliant duo behind Google came to be revered as shining New Age heroes of the World Wide Web.

This reputation survived largely untarnished even when - having made virtually no profit for the first three years and surviving on investment capital - Google began raking in huge profits by selling advertisements to run alongside its free search results.

Disciples even seem prepared to accept inevitable changes in Brin and Page's once-humble lifestyles, now that each is worth in excess of £10 billion, making them, respectively, America's fifth and sixth richest men.

They may still own environmentfriendly Toyota Prius cars and dress down to mingle with fellow Googlers, but they stamp their carbon footprint across continents in a Boeing 767 acquired from Quantas.

By all accounts, at weekends Brin likes to fly his new wife to Hawaii, where they indulge their newfound passion for kite-surfing. Page's tastes have similarly developed far beyond pizzas and Coke in the college dorm.

Celebrity guests invited to his wedding, due to be staged at a mystery location next Saturday, have been warned to bring their passports.

And yet, for all this, in recent months there has been a discernible shift in attitude towards a company which was once so universally admired.

From privacy campaigners to libertarians to politicians, people have belatedly started to eye Google with suspicion.

They fear that now it has become the search engine of choice for 50 per cent of all internet users, it already stores far too much information about us.

And they question its motives in wanting to learn a whole lot more.

In many ways, the company can only blame itself for creating this climate of distrust.

Speaking in London last May, chief executive Eric Schmidt looked forward to a world in which Google would have amassed so much intimate information about its users that it would be able to shape every aspect of their lives.

Unaware that his words would not only spread panic but play into the hands of the civil liberties brigade, Schmidt said that Google was only at an early stage of acquiring the total information it hoped to gather about its users.

"We cannot even answer the most basic questions about you because we don't know enough about you. The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask questions such as 'What shall I do tomorrow?' and 'What job should I take?' This is the most important aspect of Google's expansion."

Mr Schmidt's reckless comments could barely have come at a worse time.

The following month, the human rights watchdog Privacy International ranked the company bottom in a major survey of how securely the leading internet companies handle their users' personal information.

Later in the summer, Orkut, a social networking site owned by Google, was heavily criticised for passing a client's confidential internet service provider (ISP) address to the Indian authorities, who wanted to trace him for allegedly posting insulting images of a leading historical figure on the net. The client was later convicted and jailed.

Another storm broke over Google's agreement to censor certain "subversive" sites in China, under pressure from the hardline Communist government.

This hardly squares with the 'Do no evil' buzz-phrase, but then, a billion potential advertising customers are not easily passed over.

Then there are rumblings about Google's policy of rapaciously gobbling up smaller companies, which, some critics suggest, indicates that its ultimate aim is to be the internet, rather than just be a part of it.

Its latest and most significant acquisition is DoubleClick, the leading digital marketing company which it has bought, subject to ratification, for $3.1 billion.

When the deal is finalised, it will give Google a massive advantage over its nearest (but still distant) competitors, Yahoo and Microsoft.

"It's a Google world," sighs Chris Tolles, vice-president of marketing at Topix, a news website - service whose revenue comes from running Google ads on its site.

"We just live in it."

Indeed. Yet it is not what Google is doing now, but what it has the potential, and quite possibly the intention, of doing in the foreseeable future that is really spreading alarm.

At present, as even the least computer literate person knows, Google is way ahead of its electronic search rivals because its system is so much quicker and more efficient.

This is largely down to PageRank, the unfathomably complex computer program which Brin and Page invented.

What it does is to prioritise and order the pages of information which web searchers receive when they type a particular search request into Google. Thanks to the way that it operates, it is supposed to send back the most relevant websites first.

Indeed, I was assured by Google's vice-president of engineering, Douglas Merrill (who looks more like a rock star than an IT specialist, and works beside his Dalmatian dog) it is quite impossible for individuals or corporations to manipulate Google's search system to their advantage.

These days, lying back on their beanbags, company executives are using their imaginations to envision a brave, new, Googledominated future.

For, as Merrill says, the company has realised only a tiny percentage-of its capabilities.

One plan, which has already tentatively started, entails making literally everything in the world accessible at the click of a button. For now, this means every book, piece of music, film, TV and radio broadcast, official document and photograph.

But eventually, far-fetched as it sounds, Google boffins believe it can be extended to people and their personal belongings.

The idea is that we, and our treasured possessions, will be fitted with minute microchips which could be linked to the internet, via computers, by a digital radio frequency.

In this way, you would only have to type "Where is my watch" or "Find Joe Bloggs" into your PC or handheld computer, and Google could assist you.

The theory, at least, is that we will never lose anything and never be out of contact with oneanother - fine for parents wishing to check up on little Johnny at nursery, perhaps, but an unpalatable prospect for those who fear the temptation such a network would present to criminals or totalitarian regimes.

More immediately, Google is switching its main focus from PCs and laptops to mobile phones.

For while we may not spend all day in front of a computer screen, the firm's latest research shows that 95 per cent of users keep their phone within 3ft of their person at all times.

So, coming to a store near you, Google phones with all manner of weird and wonderful accessories will soon be available.

But the development that most alarms privacy watchdogs is known as "personalised search".

Under this Big Brother-ish concept, the details of every web search we launch and every e-mail we send could be stored to build up a worryingly detailed personal profile - age, interests, family, hobbies, tastes in food and so on.

This could then be passed to advertisers, who would bombard us with suitable adverts.

This sort of service is already available, strictly on request, though the company has agreed to delete personal data after 18 months. The danger is that could eventually be kept in perpetuity, and be misused - or fall into the wrong hands.

John Batelle, the author of the definitive book on Google, highlighted the possible ramifications recently in a controversial article which imagines what might happen if a psychologically disturbed Google employee was able to tap into sensitive information about his girlfriend, then use it to stalk and murder her.

Less melodramatically, he questions whether any single company should bear the enormous responsibility of safeguarding such a bottomless ocean of information as Google possesses.

"I think, at present, Google are good guys with their basic values intact and our best interests at heart," Battelle told me.

"I also think they have a tremendous capacity to change our world for the better. That said, I do think they have too much power."

Dr Gus Hussein, a senior fellow at Privacy International, agrees.

"We don't actually know how much personal information they are holding, but they probably know more about you than you know yourself," he says.

Disturbingly, he adds: "It's all very Borg-like" - a reference to the Cyber race in Star Trek who synthesised the thoughts and feelings of other species into one big, centralised brain.

Meanwhile, back in the Googleplex, Douglas Merrill is at pains to dismiss such doomsday scenarios as alarmist poppycock.

"Privacy is at the very core of our DNA," he says, stroking his Dalmatian.

"We believe privacy and our users' trust are intrinsically linked. If people don't trust us, they won't use us."

To emphasise his point, Merrill reassures me that, even with his elevated powers of access, he would be unable to tap into Google's own databanks to find out one solitary fact about me.

Perhaps so.

But who would bet on that remaining the case for ever, or that America's security services have not found a way to hack into the system? If Google did ever face a security breach, it would make our Inland Revenue's loss of 25 million people's personal details look trivial.

It is truly terrifying to think that in under a decade, the Googlers at this HQ in San Francisco have achieved the sort of power and global influence beyond the dreams of any tyrant in history.

The trouble is, they look at you with such misty-eyed sincerity, and they are all so unfailingly nice, that - against every instinct - you find yourself believing their protestations about fail-safe systems and benign intent.

And that may yet prove the most dangerous mistake of all.

Daily Mail

Güncelleme Tarihi: 01 Aralık 2007, 14:40