Google Bashing

“Google hacking” gets a new connotation

I tried to install Google’s new desktop search tool, but the installer didn’t work. It said I didn’t have enough hard drive space to install it, despite the fact that I had more than enough hard drive space to install it. After submitting the bug report, I got a response a week or so later that essentially said too bad.

Their tool captures everything you do on your computer, including emails sent and received, browser history, and all textual information on your hard drive (except WordPerfect documents apparently). It can take that information and let you run searches on your PC just like searching on Google’s web site, then combine those results with a search of the Internet, reporting your query to Google as well.

Google is going to be deluged with individual search habit information to a degree that they’ve never seen before. They (probably) know how people search the Internet, but now they know how people search their own computers. And the resulting information and popularity of the tool will put Google years ahead of any of their closest search engine competitors.

I don’t want a search engine on my computer, regardless if Google gets my search information or not, so I guess I’m happy that the tool didn’t work. But faster than you can say “script kiddie,” there are hacks for providing remote access to your computer’s Google desktop searches. One of these sites that described the trick warned that you shouldn’t use it for malicious purposes. Like that’s going to keep the hackers from using this.

Let me explain my fear. Google releases a tool that lets you search (almost) every document on your computer including, say, your Excel spreadsheet that contain password lists, your cached browser page that has your social security number on it, or the email that you got with your username and password for a shopping website. Just Google your machine for “password” or “username” or “SSN” or “credit card number” or “billing address” and see what comes up.

And now there’s an exploit that lets other people remotely query your machine using Google’s tool. People worry about what if they get a virus that turns their computer into a spam spewing zombie. Now you can worry that you’ll get a virus which will allow someone to search away on your PC for any information about you. I can’t wait until the first viruses that install Google’s new tool after infecting your machine. Just think of the rise in identity theft, stolen credit card numbers, cases of blackmail, and so on scaling in proportion to the rise of desktop search tools.

(Note: I’m calling this an exploit even if Google doesn’t (actually, I don’t know what they call it). If this was Microsoft, that’s what it would be called. As I see it, Google’s good name is the only thing keeping this off the radar.)

I think this could be the first of a series of similar tools that threatens privacy, security, and more. Well, maybe it’s not the first either. Gmail and other web-based email tools have a great exploit too — using search engines to answer the “security question” like “What’s your mother’s maiden name?” or “What’s your dog’s name?” when some of that information is easily searchable on the net. I know I’m not the first person to suggest that exploit, but what you should realize is that while the migration of search to the desktop gives you better access to your information, it also gives others better access to your information, your search habits, and, if used for bad purposes, your private information. Compared to Google’s desktop tool, RFID is just a UPC code.

Google scares me. Not because they’re evil, but because they’re throwing tools onto the ‘net without any regard for, well, without regard for anything as far as I can tell. The word “irresponsible” comes to mind. They’re like kids playing chemistry with the chemicals under the kitchen sink. Maybe there’s value in using the Internet as a research or marketing setting on a mass scale. But “beta testing” with anybody who wants to play with their tools means we can find the bad parts of their technology before they can fix them.

Now everyone is speculating on where Google is going next. Rumors include a Google branded browser or instant messenger. Google doesn’t want a browser. There’s enough competition in that market without Google; their toolbar is as involved as they want to get with the browsers. What Google does want is to be your portal to all the information on the Internet, your computer, and everything. They have two extraordinarily valuable assets besides their name – search technology and storage capacity. These assets stick out in all of their tools — the search engine, Orkut, Gmail, Froogle, image searching, etc.

If they are creating a “browser,” it’s not in any traditional sense of the word. I hate fortune telling, but I have a vision of something with IM and chat (based on Jabber that remembers and makes searchable all your conversations), community and social networking services (Orkut but using community information tied to their search engine info), email (Gmail), location based services (my sleeper prediction for their next avenue, eventually tied into community and general searches), and brute force searching power (including the not mentioned yet desktop and Internet searches) all built into a single (web?) application like Gmail. IBM had a prototype of parts of this in their Remail tool. Unlike IBM, if there’s anyone who can pull this off, it’s Google. And if Google can’t pull that off all at once, just watch the next few applications they release and you’ll see where they’re headed. Yahoo will be kicking themselves in the pants if (more accurately, when) Google gets to it first.

But if Google seems intent on throwing a new application to the world without some due diligence on their part, they’re only deluding themselves. And so I want to repeat my earlier comment. Google, the Internet is not your beta testing environment. You deserved more flak than you got after you released Gmail for the privacy concerns in that software, and I can only hope that your future technologies are put under even more scrutiny. Your glory days will not last forever, so you had better start thinking of new markets to wind your way into not based on your search or storage technologies. And Google, start thinking about social responsibility before you unleash these beasts into the wild.

Finally, when you get around to it, could you please fix that bug in the desktop tool installer? I’ve got some friends that I want to send it to so I can keep an eye on them…

The Law of Diminishing Interest

Sometimes, one opinion is enough for everybody.

Time for the much anticipated corollary of the Law of Diminishing Opinions.

The Law of Diminishing Interest

After opinions/statements/stories have proliferated about a topic, it will eventually be beaten to death such that no one will care about it any more.

Obviously this doesn’t apply to everything. Specifically, a few issues are so polarized, so passion invoking, that no amount of time will let it slide: abortion, hard-core Republicans vs. hard-core Democrats, are Bert and Ernie gay, stem cell research, is “Shiny Happy People” the worst song ever written. And personal blogs are an exception I’ll get to later.

So lets take John Kerry and the swift boats mess. It was hardly a month ago that every news program dedicated at least one story to the newest revelation of this story. Everyone had an opinion on it, the opinions proliferated, and the story broke under its own weight. We all got so sick of hearing “turned chicken and ran from the fight this” and “shot some gook in the back that” and now we would rather live the rest of our lives without knowing this ever happened.

Music provides a better example. Why does it seem like there are only ten bands that play on MTV or pop radio stations all the time? Probably because there are only ten bands playing all the time. Popularity in music has limits; only so many bands can be popular at once, so once a new one hit wonder comes along, an old one has to go away. We’re no longer interested in that old song. Our interests have moved on to the next big thing.

Let’s move to blogging. First, you already only can keep up with a few blogs at once. Your reading 30 or 50 RSS feeds and that already takes up hours a day, but at least it’s more manageable than checking 30 to 50 web sites a day. You can hardly keep up with those posts, so you skim most and only read a couple that matter most. Adding another blog is right out unless there’s an old one you can remove to make way for the new one.

Furthermore, you don’t want to read two blogs that cover the same thing, offering the same opinion. Just like the news, you can get all your news information needs sated from one, maybe two sources that you trust. Any further sources just rehash what you already knew. That’s why blogs have to differentiate themselves with witty opinions or pointless pining or random digressions. If you’re the same as everyone else, why should other people read what you write? Personal blogs are obviously an exception to this since they are unique as are their authors, but people with a panache for daily posting can quickly become overwhelming…

And even within blog posts, bloggers’ laziness is evident in their behavior. The ultimate props you can give is a link and maybe quote to someone else’s blog. This results in a single story propagating throughout the blogging realm with lightning speed and with dulling repetitiveness. I can’t count how many times I’ve now read the story about Bush’s so called wireless earpiece strapped to his back during the first debate. Actually, it wasn’t an earpiece. The battery pack that keeps Robot Bush animated slipped out a bit, and the operators couldn’t come on stage during the debate to slip it back in place.

The blogging echo chamber is the worst manifestation of the Law of Diminishing Interest. Here we have a medium that prides itself on interconnectivity and information proliferation. The result of this is repetition, unoriginal commentaries, and shameless self promotion. While the Law of Diminishing Opinion tells us that fewer and fewer new thoughts will proliferate the longer a topic languishes, the Law of Diminishing Interest tells us that we will care less and less about those opinions as time goes by. That’s not to say one of those tail opinions might be interesting or not, just that they’re lost in the noise as a result of bad timing. This reinforces the value of breaking news stories and being quick with responses to current events, both of which the blogging world are very good at. My point is that as opinions start flowing out about an event, we dilute the value of any one of them because there are so many opinions written and we can’t spread our attention that thin.

Surprisingly, these problems are partly solved because of our limited attention span — the fact that we can only keep track of so many (or few) sources of information at once. With so many information sources available, we ratchet our own information filters very high so that we don’t become overwhelmed by keeping up with two hundred web sites a day. The end result of this are Zipf distributions (power law, on a log-log plot it’s a line with a slope of -1) of traffic for the Internet as a whole and (as I hope to experiment with soon) blogs. Just like Bush’s tax cuts, the top 0.01% of sites get nearly one-third of all traffic. (Porn is different. A small number of sites (say, 1, 3, 5) is enough for most Internet search needs, but we need many more pages of porn to fill our, um, needs. Geoff Nunberg made this observation in one of my classes.)

But this distribution of blogging traffic means you put your blinders on. We like news sources that reflect our own ethics and political views so we congregate to those sites. So those few sites you do read are ones that reinforce your world view rather than expand it as the Internet idealists would prefer.

And thus I offer you a challenge. Start reading something that completely appals you. Democrats — try the National Review. Republicans — how about The Nation? Undecided or Independents, read The Week or The Economist depending on how short or long your attention span is, respectively. LaRouche or Nader people, I assign you to read The Constitution. I can happily admit that there is no greater educational experience than understanding your enemies. Not only will it reinforce your beliefs but hopefully it will also make you realize why you believe the things you do.

Simply put, the Internet has too much information to be useful unless you narrow your eyes a bit. This could be the ten pages you read most, the five search results you check after you’ve entered your query, or the several dozen pages you go to for your porn needs. Blogs are even more guilty of this than most, primarily due to their explosive growth (more on blog growth in future posts). Certainly we need better tools and methods for filtering what’s out there to a usable level. But for now, I think we would all be best served by having better porn search tools. Regardless of how interests diminish for most of the web, I think I can safely say that interest in pornography is something you can count on far into the future.