February 6, 2010

Don't Do Evil

"Don't Do Evil." Google's corporate slogan, at first blush, appears lofty, or maybe naive. Some argue it is a smoke-screen for the true purpose behind the creation of Google which was to rule the world as a result of its control of information. Personally, I am somewhere in the middle. I, don't believe Google exists for purely altruistic reasons. Yet, I find it hard to believe Larry Page and Sergey Brin set out to rule the world. While I am impressed with the products Google has implemented, there is a voice inside me sending out warning signals. I many ways it is hard to articulate the content of those warning signals. When I try, I tend to ramble. So, I anticipate this being the first of several posts about Google and the issues raised by what they do. If nothing else, I hope what follow gives you something to think about.

An early Google tag line exclaims "We deliver the world's information in one click." In order to do this, Google has to gather the world's information, and store it on servers located all over the world, so when we do click on a mouse, the information has only a short distance to travel to our computer monitor. Simply put, Google began as a search company. They are run by engineers who developed an algorithm enabling us to search for information we want and have it delivered to us in a matter of seconds. It appears to me Google does this by collecting every piece of data they can from the people using their products. When we perform a search, Google stores our query. When we click on an ad we see on a search results page, Google stores that information too. Google's business plan must be based in a large part on selling advertising. The data Google collects from our searches, including the amount of time we spend viewing an ad, reading something we click on, what we search for, where we go to next, what we appear to like and dislike, is invaluable to them, and more importantly, to the company paying for the advertisement. Though Google claims not to turn information over to the advertiser, they use the information themselves to help the advertiser target customers. By using Google for our search needs we are trusting them not to share our personal information with anyone. We are telling them, "Don't Do Evil."

Privacy Issues
I believe we must be aware of the possibilty that our personal information may be shared with others. Our privacy rights may be violated. But, have we "assumed the risk" by using Google search of our own free will. It's a dilemma.

I read, and enjoy movies. I enjoy a good conspiracy theory. The possibilities are interesting to me. For example, for many years I've felt, in a tiny space in the back of my brain, that Google was collaborating with the United States government, or one of its information gathering agencies. My theory is Google enticed millions of people to use its free gMail product so it could gather personal information and share that information with the United States government. How else did they make money on a free service? By selling advertising? I suppose it's possible, but not as sexy as my conspiracy theory. Have you ever noticed the advertisements that appear on your screen after you perform a search. More times than not, the advertisement relates to something in your search. Have you noticed the ads on my blog (generated by Google's AdSense) change as my posts change, and they generally relate in some way to the post itself. coincidence? Seems to me Google is on very thin ice. They need to gather information about us to be the best at what they do. We need to have a tremendous amount of trust that Google isn't sharing our information. Google risks their entire business by sharing our information and losing our trust. If Google doesn't share our information how will they entise advertisers to pay for ads that generte revenue so Google can operate? See, it all fits nicely in my imagined conspiracy theory.

Maybe Google should be required to share information, or at least some information with government agencies. If Google is in the business of gathering information and they come across information that has national security implications, should they be permitted or required to share that information with the appropriate government agency? If the government, arrests a suspected terrorist, should it be permitted to see the messages that person sent via gMail? If so, may they then see the messages received and sent by the recipients of the mail sent by the suspected terrorist? If so, where does it stop? Is someone from a government agency sitting in a room 24/7/365 scanning every message sent by the millions of gMail users. If so, my conspiracy theory gets more interesting doesn't it. Did you hear about the high school teacher who, as a class lesson, sent a phony message through gMail that hinted at possible terrorist activity? The very next day, the FBI showed up at his house. It could have happened.

Think for a minute about the privacy implications of the following stream of thought. Google has an incredible amount of power because they developed a device to gather and store information from all aspects of your life. The data it gathers from you grows much like a multi-level marketing campaign with Google at the very bottom of the pile. The more people that use it, the more data is collected. The more data collected, the more advertisers want to advertise because Google can maximize their advertising dollars through their ability to provide data that helps the advertisers target Google users. Every time we search we provide Google with data because we choose a result. And, every time we choose a result we give Google data that they learn something from. For just a minute, assume this theory is correct. What comes to mind when you think about these words: privacy, greed, competition? What happens when I toss in the fact that I've only mentioned two of Google's products; search and gMail? What happens when you add in the data gathered through You Tube, Google Docs, Google Calendar, gChat, AdSense, Adwords, Google Analytics, and the rest of the Google product line? What happens to my theory when we learn Google purchased Doubleclick? Doubleclick provides the digital platform for websites to sell online ads and advertisers and agencies to buy advertising. What happens when we learn Doubleclick uses its database to help advertisers target prospects. Does it appear to you Google's purchase of Doubleclick may have given it the opportunity to become the foundation of all advertising on the Internet. Is that too large a stretch of the imagination?

"Conspiracy Theory" or "Reality"
Is my imagination creating a conspiracy theory worthy of a screenplay for a "B Movie" or is it reality? In the February 4, 2010 issue of "The Denver Post" newspaper I read an article about Google and the National Security Association (NSA), one of the United States government's largest information gathering agencies. The essence of the article was Google and the NSA were in conversations to see if the NSA could assist Google in determining how or who was responsible for hacking into the gMail system in China. It appears gMail accounts in China were hacked into, disabled, and plundered of their content. It also appears that the targeted accounts werre those of Chinese dissidents, people who oppose the Chinese government, and people who are proponents of the free flow of information in China. What happens to my "Conspiracy Theory" if Google consumates a deal with the NSA and opens up its databases to this information gathering organization? What if Google has been providing the NSA with this information all along, and this is just an excuse to get the relationship out into the open because people much smarter than me are thinking about my "Conspiracy theory?" Stay tuned.

January 31, 2010

While There is Tragedy in Haiti, Don't Forget Your Neighbors

Up to 200,000 people may have died after a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010. Over 2 million people are still in need of food and medical attention. The disaster in Haiti is hard to fathom. My heart goes out to those injured, dead, and now those millions who are still in need of food and medical attention. I can't even imagine what it is going to take to rebuild Haiti after this terrible event.

USAID reports as of January 22, it has contributed $90 million to the U.N. appeal, including $22 million in non-food assistance and $68 million in food assistance. Additional contributions of nearly $90 million in assistance for search-and-rescue, health, and other support had also been committed as of January 22, bringing total USAID assistance to Haiti for the earthquake $180 million. Over the past several weeks I have seen television commercials imploring people to donate money, food, and clothing to Haiti. I have seen movie stars, professional athletes, musicians, rap stars and others announcing that they personally have donated money to Haiti and asking us to do the same. The outpouring of support for the people suffering from this tragedy is unbelievable. Especially in light of the number of Americans out of work or devastated by the economic downturn here in the United States. Americans have a lot to be proud of for the efforts being made to help the Haitian people, and it appears we have only just begun.

I was in San Francisco the day after the earthquake struck Haiti to celebrate my daughter's birthday. I had a wonderful three days celebrating with Lauren and her friends. We played and ate and generally just had a very fun time going places and doing things. During the day, it seemed everywhere we went someone was asking us for money to eat, drink, or get somewhere. At night, everywhere we went we saw people sleeping in doorways of stores and office buildings. There is poverty and homelessness in San Francisco, and, I would venture to guess, every big city in the United States, and probably small cities too.

About 3.5 million US residents (about 1% of the population), including 1.35 million children, have been homeless for a significant period of time. Over 37,000 homeless individuals (including 16,000 children) stay in shelters in New York every night. This information was gathered by the Urban Institute, but actual numbers might be higher.

A study conducted in 2001 by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 27 major cities showed that homeless shelters turned down 37% of individuals due to overcrowding. This number has increased 11% compared to the previous year, while the number of places available in homeless shelters changed insignificantly. Statistics for homeless families are even graver -- 52% were turned down by homeless shelters, an increase of 22% since 2001. Experts believe that the number of homeless people is significantly higher than the number of places available in shelters. Furthermore, outside of major cities there are very few shelters, despite the high number of the homeless.

Some important information gleaned from Sermon’s video above:

• On a given night, an estimated 672,000 people experience homelessness. This means 22 out of every 10,000 people are homeless in America.

• 42% of those 672,000 are unsheltered (meaning they live on the streets or in other forms of shelter not meant for human habitation), while 58% are living in shelters or transitional housing.

• 37% of the homeless are people in family units, while 63% are individual adults.

• The most common makeup of a homeless family is a mother with one or two children. This certainly goes against the image of homelessness most perceive; we’ve noticed that people typically picture the homeless as a single male standing on the street corner, not a single mom with kids in tow.

• Those meeting the federal definition for chronic homelessness make up just 18% of the entire homeless population.

• Sermon explains that the chronically homeless, as defined by the federal government, include individuals with physical or mental disabilities who have experienced homelessness multiple times or have remained homeless for a significant amount of time.

• 8 out of 10 homeless persons are in urban or mostly urban areas.

• Overall, homelessness decreased 10% from 2005 to 2007. This does not show the influence of the current economic slump.

• In July 2009, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a mix of 2007 and 2008 homeless count numbers, the first official attempt to reveal the affects the recession has had on the homeless. These preliminary numbers show that the number of homeless had not changed between 2007 and 2008. However, Sermons points out that this stalemate (after a period of significant decreases in homelessness) demonstrates a significant step backward in efforts to end homelessness.

The recession will force 1.5 million more people into homelessness over the next two years, according to estimates by The National Alliance to End Homelessness. In a 2008 report, the U.S. Conference of Mayors cited a major increase in the number of homeless in 19 out of the 25 cities surveyed. On average, cities reported a 12 percent increase of homelessness since 2007.

Although homelessness is a difficult number to measure definitively, it appears that more people—especially families—are sleeping in shelters, living in their cars, and taking up residence in tent communities. See also: "Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University: The State of the Nation's Housing 2009."

I could go on and on, but by now I sense you get the point. Things are not great right here in the United States of America. We may not be suffering from a tragic 7.0 earthquake, but there are homeless hungry people right here in America. There are people right here in America who need food, clothing, and medical attention. I can't help but wonder what that $180 million dollars could be doing right here in America.

Many different religions provide guidelines for giving charity. We've all heard "Charity begins at home." Religious teachings agree. After things are secured at home, we are told to look for those in need in our community, in our city, in our state, in our country, and then, and only then, to those throughout the rest of the world. I hope those who have given to those in need of assistance in Haiti have helped those in need right here in America. If not, it's not too late. There's a woman out on the street not two miles from my house holding a sign that says "Dreaming of Chicken."
Creative Commons License
TheBAFSignal by Bradley A. Friedman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.bafman.com.