Does Google Know Your Religion?

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14 February 2014
Craig Weber
An industry contact recently told me that her phone popped up the following “creepy” message one Sunday morning: “9 minutes’ drive time to St. XXXX Church.” This, of course, was a predictable result of Google Now keeping track of where and when she regularly went, and nobly trying to help her get to her regular 8:30 a.m. Mass on time. What makes it creepy is that most people put religion (and politics? and sex?) on a mental “Off Limits” list. Deeply personal issues like these are risky fodder at cocktail parties, and equally risky subjects for automated, data-driven insights. An application like Google Now doesn’t understand the issue unless its human coders are prescient enough to realize there are some connections we humans simply don’t want our devices to make on our behalf. But now the string of unintended consequences has begun. My contact told her story in a room full of people. The consensus reaction around the table was, “Google keeps track of where you drive, and even figures out what’s there? That’s over the top.” What else, we wondered, would the app notice about us and dispassionately reflect back via pop-up message? Some bland examples: “You’re almost out of gin, and there’s a liquor store nearby…” “Your wife won’t be home for another hour, and Melrose Place is on channel 7 right now…” “You’ve been getting a lot of emails from XXXXX—perhaps you should ask him/her out?” The conversation took us quickly from ambivalence to unease. Others in that group probably mentioned their unease to their spouses and colleagues and friends. As I write, an ever-widening circle of people is developing reasons to be suspicious and uncomfortable about Google Now—which, by the way, is a perfectly excellent and useful app about 99 percent of the time! It’s a grand example of the problem we’ll face as we try to harness the power of big data. Years ago, when desktop publishing first became a technical reality for business users, a friend of mine who was a professional designer put a sign on her wall: “Power Ability.” She was telling people that just because they could publish their own office newsletters, crammed with cutsie clip-art, didn’t mean that they should. Someone might want to give Google the same sort of advice, especially when church locations are involved.

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Blogs
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Asia-Pacific, EMEA, LATAM, North America