Google introduces search functionality, with a catch


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

The features in question are two research add-ons, both of which are being rolled out early in the developer-focused Chrome Canary browser. One is a still unnamed experimental search tool that appears in a browser side panel. The other is an organizational add-on to regular search functions, called Journeys.

The side panel search tool is ideal for users who work in a single tab or for those who tend to open 173 tabs on 5 different browser windows. Once the user has made a search query and clicked on a result, instead of clicking “back”, they can click on a small “G” icon next to it. The tool will show more Google search results for the query in a scrolling sidebar that occupies the left third of the window, much like the Preview pane tool in Windows File Explorer. Indeed, it is a button “show the results of my last Google search”. From the side search panel, the user can preview what is behind other links with the search results still visible in the window.

While a preview pane only tracks other browsers, the side search pane is also meant as another way to bring the user back to the Google search results page, the one with the sponsored ads. The always-active Google button is right next to the “back” button. It even does a sort of “return” function. It’s an extremely subtle barrier: like rolling a marble down a shallow slope, where “going down” is always in the direction of more than Google.

The Journeys tool collects and categorizes the user’s search queries, then semantically maps them to each other. In its announcement, the Chromium blog gives an example of someone using the service to more easily plan a trip to Yosemite. Journeys can gather related research topics from your research history and group them for you. It can also provide search suggestions for other related topics. Additionally, in line with Google’s generally robust privacy policy, the blog assures us that they won’t automatically start assembling a Journeys profile on all of your connected devices for at least less a few weeks.

Like Apple’s well-meaning CSAM scanner, the Journeys feature has legitimate applications. Just like the CSAM scanner, it is perfectly designed to be used 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 well-organized concept map. Combined with Google’s other location and behavior analysis, this would be a gold mine for law enforcement and advertisers.

I’m not accusing Google of being mean. I say, however, that they’re building part of the behavioral targeting retail panopticon here. They are also in the process of becoming an arm of law enforcement, as slimy mold grows where food is. Google has long since exhausted the benefit of the doubt.

Leaked whistleblowers, emails and internal memos have shown us that Silicon Valley is keenly aware of the potential for abuse in much of the software it produces. Hanlon’s Razor tells us to never attribute to wickedness what is adequately explained by ignorance or incompetence. Beyond this inflection point, Grey’s law applies: sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

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