Trust me, I’m with Google

September 11, 2013

Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, is unsurprisingly an advocate of data extraction and analysis on a mass scale – you’d almost have to be, as data-cruncher-in-chief of a company whose search engine was tapped a billion times just since this morning.

At the annual meeting of the National Association for Business Economics in San Francisco, Varian talked at length about how people can use software to make life better, describing one Google application that he said can retrieve information from your private calendar, check the traffic on the route to your next appointment, and notify you that you’d better leave shortly or risk being late. “I have to say, for some people, this completely freaks them out,” he quipped, but later added that for most kinds of information, the benefits of sharing information with your computer outweigh the costs.

Still, some people are uncomfortable with the extent to which their privacy is at risk in an online world, particularly after new revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency’s ability to keep electronic tabs on Internet users. Asked about legislative responses to the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Varian had this to say:

The issue is of course there are voices to try to control the use of this data. And the question is how should that be done. Some people say you shouldn’t collect the data in the first place. As a social scientist, this freaks me out.

He went on to say that part of the problem is that people don’t know how the information is collected or how it is used.

The most important issue… is the issue of trust. If you’ve got a system that’s providing direct and immediate benefits to you, then you are going to feel a lot more comfortable with it than a system that is taking your data and you don’t know what the heck happens to it.

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