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Internet search engine Google plans to target people's interests using data collected on its users Lesley-Anne Henry asks: is this the next logical step or the thin end of the orwellian wedge. Google's declaration of intent to assemble the most comprehensive database of personal information has thrown down the gauntlet to civil libertarians. The multi-billion pound search engine claims it wants to "better" the internet experience by organising the world's information and collating data on its users so it can guess what customers are searching for.

The ultimate aim is to make Google so personal that it can target people known to be interested in certain products or services just from their Google activities. It is expected that one day users could ask a computer 'What should I do today?' or 'Which job should I take?' and it will tell them the answer.
In theory there should be no problem. In fact, the new database could make life easier - perhaps even better. For example if you want to buy a particular book from a certain site, Google could locate other sites selling the same book at a cheaper price or it could recommend other books by the same author.

Also if you want to buy a television or a holiday then the search engine could bring up the best buy. In establishing this database Google says it is giving customers what they want and that any information collated will be volunteered. Users will only be identified by name if they sign up to one of the log-on services such as G-mail or Frugal.

Also under the Data Protection Act information must only be used for the purposes it was given and Google has said it plans to impose a limit on the period it keeps personal information. In fairness, Google has proved itself to be the best of its kind and has in the past resisted US government court applications to hand over personal information it holds on some users.

We already live in a closely monitored world. Store loyalty cards have been keeping track of our shopping habits for years while CCTV cameras watch us on the streets and some banks pass our details on to marketing companies. There are also internet sites like Bebo and Myspace where people can easily access detailed personal information. Critics fear the database is the next step towards an Orwellian Big Brother state. They see the declaration as an infringement of civil liberties by stealth by a company that wants to turn the personal database into a lucrative marketing tool. Like all businesses Google is driven to make money which it does through multi-million pound advertising sponsorship. This means consumers have no idea whether or not the information being given is impartial or whether something is being recommended of a big money deal. In reality people would not tolerate being followed around town by someone taking notes of everything they buy, the reasons behind their purchase and steering them towards certain shops.

So why should we put up with it in the virtual world?

Attempting to profile people through the sites they access may not give an accurate portrayal. Some people, for example journalists, have to surf a variety of sites which they would never consider entering outside of the office. And privacy protection campaigners fear that in certain circumstances law enforcement agents could force internet search engines to surrender personal information. Google has bought the targeted advertising company Doubleclick which monitors users on a wide range of websites, and deploys "cookies" - small bits of software - on people's computers to keep track of what they are looking at. And it has also invested £2m in genetics company 23andMe - a move which sceptics of the database see as worrying. However, the precise type and size of the database problem has yet to be determined. It will change as Google's business changes. The best advice is, as in real life, if you are concerned about privacy, don't give personal information unless you are sure you know what it is going be used for both now and in the future.


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