You are being watched. No, calm down, I didn’t mean in the real world, sit back down and stop looking behind your sofa.
For many years people have simultaneously worried about how their browsing habits were being tracked and perhaps used to monitor their activities while marvelled at how Amazon suggests new products for them based on their previous choices – online data collection really is a double-edged sword. In the UK we have a law where websites have to visibly inform you about browser cookie use and give you either a choice or instructions on how to enable them or otherwise.
The data collected by browsers is not always sent to advertisers, much is used today to improve services, make useful suggestions for stuff to buy, places to visit, people to friend on Facebook etc. The data collected when you’re logged into Google’s many and varied services, for example, can be used by their Google Now service to provide real-time information relevant to you. I was impressed when without being told my Nexus 7 knew where I worked and how long it would take to get there, giving me weather and travel information too. My first reaction was “how did it know?” I don’t take it to work, has it been talking to my phone? Well, in a way, it used my contacts information, I think, I hope. These computerised personal assistants like Google Now and Apple’s Siri are a wonder of our time, intelligently finding, collating and presenting information in truly intuitive ways, I’m still impressed whenever I ask my Nexus 7 what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow.
But the other day I discovered something about Google Now that could, in the right, or wrong circumstances be interesting or awkward. I searched for Cromwell Weir on Google Maps on my laptop and later that evening noticed that my Nexus 7 was giving me, like the helpful little soul it is, travel information to Cromwell. Later still I searched for a shop in Lincoln and again it was there saying “are you wanting to go there now? I can show you where to go.”
Which is all very helpful until you’re searching for a hotel for a surprise weekend away for you and your other half on your PC while your tablet, in the hands of your beloved in the room next door is happily giving the game away.
So if you don’t want Google, or for that matter Siri if Apple’s assistant has similar abilities blabbing about your plans remember to log out before browsing.