Last weekend, I was searching for a restaurant to take my wife to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. Using an Android tablet, I checked out about five restaurants using the Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) search engine, and Google reviews. I settled on one and went back to playing a game awaiting my wife's return from work. When she arrived home, I greeted her and then put the tablet away as soon as my game ended. I told her that I found a restaurant. Just then, I noticed something on my tablet that jarred me. I said to my wife: "Hey that's weird! It says '10 minutes away from Pisces restaurant.' I'm sure I did not put that in my calendar!"
It wasn't in my calendar. It was in a little window at the bottom of my screen where the weather is usually displayed. I said to myself: "Holy crap! Google is spying on me!" Then back to my wife: "Well, it's one thing for Google to remember my searches across my different computers, which can be practical but kind of creepy, but this is too much!" I then thought: if this is what it is up to, I need to wean myself from all Google services as soon as possible.
That little window at the bottom of my screen is called a card. Cards are a part of Google Now, a new service designed to make your life easier… or a living hell. I do enjoy having the weather displayed there. Now, why did Google have to go and ruin a perfect relationship?!
Image: Google Now Weather Card
You won't find cards or Google Now in your list of apps. Both are integrated in Google Search. Confused? Ì was at first. Let me make it perfectly clear: in exchange for access to your personal information, Google Now acts as your new personal assistant.
Here are some examples of what it can do for you: if you agree to share your location, it can provide your weather conditions in a window called a card. Many cards exist ranging from traffic conditions, flights, and other types of various searches you undertake, such as movies, local events, hotels, products and many more.
While I can understand that Google is well intentioned in trying to provide users practical services, Now takes your private searches and exposes them at unpredictable times to whoever lays eyes on your tablet or smartphone. Imagine that. If I had wanted to keep our night out at the restaurant a secret, the news would have been out of the bag as soon as my wife reached for the tablet to play a game. And that's an extremely benign example.
New York Times technology blog writer Jenna Wortham wrote in a post entitled "Will Google s Personal Assistant Be Creepy or Cool?: "It's easy to see how this kind of service could be helpful. It's also really easy to see how it could be creepy. What's harder, however, is to see the line between the two, and to know where (and when) Google might cross it."
She adds: "A standalone app that pings you to let you know when friends are nearby might feel like a friendly little helper. Google doing it might feel like a menacing stalker. In addition, a service like Google Now may also cause people to realize exactly how much data and information Google actually has about their routines and daily lives. And that might cause some people to be very, very uncomfortable, regardless of how useful the service is."
If Google Now reveals information I thought was private, it may cause conflict in my life. No big deal for Google. However, if it causes conflict in the lives of well connected, powerful people, I would say: Google you have a problem.
The design of this personal assistant shouts out a (four-letter) statement that others have voiced before today, but that Google has chosen to ignore or not deal with properly. It's great to be a company that is brave enough to venture out into the cutting edge, but it's kind of ridiculous not to measure the consequences beforehand. Will you be wearing Google Glass publicly? If you answer yes, make sure your life insurance is up to date. Or at least get long-term disability insurance. If I were a shareholder, I would cry out: OK, Google has great engineers! But now it needs advisors!
Google Now needs a major rethink. It's one thing for a professional computer technician to find out where the new personal assistant's settings reside and turn them off. However, it may take life-changing conflicts to arise before non tech savvy people endeavor to "get this awful spy taken care of by whatever means necessary."
Image: Google Now App permissions
I don't mind if Google shareholders get rich by monetizing my personal information in exchange for useful services. In fact I applaud it. I do mind, however, if I have no control over what and when information gets brought up in a window.
How privacy or other scandals would impact the company's stock price is difficult to predict. Shareholders can be sensitive and fickle. Tech stocks are very volatile and this one has gone up more than 50% in the last year. Losing a portion of that could hurt. The point is: Google does offer excellent products, once they are fine tuned. The company is king in search, and search ads, and competitors can barely be seen on the horizon. But if I were a shareholder, I would want Google to put more thought into products before releasing them to reduce risk and volatility.
Additional disclosure: I am long NOK.