Google Introduces Search Features, With a Snag

Google Introduces Search Features, With a Snag

Chrome is getting more bells and whistles. They’re great for behavioral targeting and terrible for privacy — but what else is new? Gentle reader, be warned. I’m a curmudgeon about this.

The features in question are two search adjuncts, both on early rollout in the developer-focused Chrome Canary browser. One is an as-yet-unnamed experimental search tool that pops up in a side panel of the browser. The other is an organizational add-on to regular search functions, named Journeys.

The side panel search tool is great for users who work in one tab, or those who tend to open 173 tabs across 5 different browser windows. Once the user makes a search query and clicks on a result, instead of clicking “back,” they can click on a little “G” icon right next to it. The tool will display more Google search results for the query in a scrolling sidebar that takes up the left third of window, much like the Preview pane tool in the Windows file explorer. Effectively, it’s a “display the results of my last Google search” button. From the side search panel, the user can preview what’s behind other links, with their search results still visible in the window.

While a preview pane is just keeping up with the other browsers, the side search panel also happens to be designed as another avenue to lead the user back to the Google search results page, the one with the sponsored ads. The always-on Google button is right next to the “back” button. It even kind of does a “back” function. It’s an extremely subtle barrier: like rolling a marble up a shallow slope, where “down” is always in the direction of more Google.

The Journeys tool collects and categorizes the user’s search queries, and then maps them out semantically with respect to one another. In its announcement, the Chromium blog gives the example of someone using the service to more easily plan a trip to Yosemite. Journeys can gather related search topics from your search history and cluster them for you. It can also offer search suggestions for other related topics. Plus, in keeping with Google’s typically robust privacy policy, the blog assures us that they won’t start automatically assembling a Journeys profile across all of your connected devices for at least a few weeks.

Like Apple’s well-intentioned CSAM scanner, the Journeys feature has legitimate applications. Also like the CSAM scanner, it is perfectly designed for use as a surveillance tool. Like facial recognition and Stingrays, Journeys can easily be used to create a behavioral profile of its users. Unlike facial recognition or Stingrays, Journeys presents its information in a conveniently organized concept map. Combined with the other location tracking and behavioral analysis Google does, this would be a gold mine for law enforcement and advertisers alike.

I’m not accusing Google of being evil. I am, however, saying that they’re building a piece of the behavioral-targeting retail panopticon here. They are also growing toward becoming an arm of law enforcement, like a slime mold grows to where the food is. Google has long since exhausted the benefit of the doubt.

Whistleblowers, emails, and leaked internal memos have shown us that Silicon Valley is perfectly aware of the abuse potential in much of the software it produces. Hanlon’s razor tells us never to attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance or incompetence. Past that inflection point, Grey’s law applies: sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

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