Google's Schmidt: The future of online tracking, the need for a delete button

Google's Schmidt: The future of online tracking, the need for a delete button

Summary: Let's all make it easier on ourselves and change our names when we reach 18 years of age, shall we?

eric-schmidt-internet delete button privacy

"The lack of a delete button on the Internet is a significant issue. There is a time when erasure is a right thing."

These are the words of Eric Schmidt, Google's Executive Chairman, and they are likely to resonate with many of us.

The Internet is an incredible thing. It has resulted in the sharing of information, technological expansion, the creation of completely new industries and allows us to better communicate with our peers. However, with such connectivity -- coupled with our new-found obsession with mobile gadgets -- there is also responsibility.

As reported by sister site CNET, while discussing a new book written by Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, the Google exec used the example of a crime committed as a minor -- wiped from official records but still found online, which prevented someone from securing a job.

In the eyes of Schmidt, the Internet -- while a powerful tool -- may end up hampering the "sense of fairness that's culturally true for all of us" in the United States.

When Facebook first introduced the Timeline feature, there was a mad rush to delete and remove posts, status updates and photos that were suddenly being thrown out of the closet, thought long forgotten. I doubt I was the only one to cringe at a ridiculous update or online conversation conducted years ago -- just as the case of Paris Brown represents. As Britain's first youth police and crime commissioner, Brown was meant to be providing a young person's perspective on policing, but the 17-year old became embroiled in an investigation over tweets she had sent between the ages of 14 and 16.

These tweets were considered "homophobic, racist and violent," and although prosecution did not go ahead, Brown decided not to take up the paid role -- and the media exposure is likely to impact her future career.

There is a lesson for all of us here when it comes down to our digital footprint. During an event at New York University in Manhattan, Schmidt told attendees that while mistakes made when young can eventually be wiped from an adult's record, copies and records of incidents can still be found online -- in the same way that we can be profiled based on social media activity, photos and comments.

Generation Y have been the first exposed fully to the concept of protecting your digital footprint -- as best you can. As they grew up and explored the Internet, digital citizenship has been discussed, social media networks have exploded, and more than a few of the 18-30's generation change their surname on Facebook to avoid being discovered by employers checking up on interview applicants.

"I propose that at the age of 18, you should, just as a policy, change your name. Then you can say, 'That really wasn't me; I really didn't do that!" Schmidt said at the conference. The comment may have been pithy, but it rings true for the privacy issues and company data mining that we all have to now keep in mind.

Whether it is the emerging technology Google Glass represents or the high interaction levels offered by social media networks, government or company tracking is only one side of the coin -- we also have a responsibility to manage our own digital footprints, and make sure the next generation are informed enough to do the same.

The future may include wearable gadgets and potentially even embedded ones, but as Schmidt noted, levels of tracking may eventually reach an unbreakable ceiling -- unless kept heavily under wraps. "Ultimately, in a competitive market, companies want the consumers to be happy. A situation where you go to people and say, 'Oh, here's our phone, and we're going to track you to death,' people are not going to buy that phone. It's just a bad business model."

Topics: Google, Emerging Tech

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  • Privacy No More?

    The "dossierization" (to coin a word) of our society has been progressing for over a century. In the pioneer days of the US, someone who was in trouble, or in debt, in a large city on the East Coast (or later, a large city east of the Mississippi or on the west coast), only had to go out to the wilderness where no one knew that person's name or reputation. Self-reformed, uncaught criminals were able to reboot their lives, either for an honest career or for more profitable criminal careers. By the middle of the 20th century, the need for records for Social Security and tax withholding made this much more difficult, since even if the "gummint" wasn't looking for you, employers could, and usually did, check an applicant's record with previous employers. The good part: criminals found it harder to "disappear" in the frontier. The bad part: people in trouble for minor employment offenses or politically unwelcome to their previous employers could not find jobs either.

    Today's social media extend this even further, since in theory nothing would stop employers from "blacklisting" people for trivial incidents in their past that, legally, should not be relevant. And of course, members of minority groups, present or former political activists, women, gay people, etc. for whom those characteristics SHOULD not be indicated on job applications, can be kept out of consideration much more easily by looking at their internet trail.

    As much as we Americans say we hate regulations, there may need to be some to protect people from job loss or rejection on the basis of personal traits that are already protected but can be inferred from the internet. Suppose all corporations blacklisted people who worked on a political campaign for the "wrong" party? And required a "loyalty oath" to get or keep their jobs, then checked to make sure they were keeping it? That would make the McCarthy persecution of so-called "communists" mild by comparison.

    Perhaps government could solve this problem by issuing people a new Social Security number on request; only the SSA and IRS could chain it back to the old one, for benefits and tax purposes, thus effectively deleting the unofficial records used for blacklisting. Or put people unemployed for non-criminal activities on a special priority basis for getting unemployment insurance, while the NLRB would automatically investigate whether they WERE illegally fired or refused, and punish violators appropriately (the managers personally, including CEO's, not the corporation).

    Any other ideas that would HELP, beyond saying that THESE ideas are unacceptable for ideological reasons?
  • This is just lip service, nothing more.

    Google is really the last entity in the world that would want to give up all that information on you.

    They love the talk, but have failed the walk.
    William Farrel
  • Why not educated everyone, including kids, on self-responsibility?

    The article seems to imply that children, up through age 18, should not be expected to be responsible for their own actions. I remember being taught as a young child of less than 10 years old that my actions have consequences. I remember thinking about whether it's a good idea to say something or tell someone something. Children are able to learn about consequences and ways to protect themselves and the people they care about. They can be taught about privacy.

    There used to be a concept called Netiquette -- good behavior on the net. We should develop that and teach it.

    I agree that there should be a way to erase past social media material but even better is to promote education so that people live responsibly.
    • WHOSE definition of "responsible"?

      Who's to say what constitutes "netiquette" and "living responsibly"? Just the subtle threat and pressure of possible social opprobrium can repress or restrict free thought. Plenty of repressive governments are delighted to use browbeating threats about what is considered acceptable to view or discuss online to keep the population submissive.
  • Hey! I have a novel suggestion.

    DON'T USE any of these asinine social networking sites.
  • Social media sucks

    This is why I don't HAVE a Facebook account and I never will. Being an old geezer (50), I've been amazed watching younger people rush so enthusiastically to completely throw away their privacy on the internet. I don't want to be scanned, sorted, tracked, colated, etc. Yes, I know, you can be tracked by ISP's etc. but there are ways to limit your exposure and you certainly don't have to completely spill your guts on the internet using your own name.

    Many people are going to find that trusting Facebook, Instagram, Google et al. was a big mistake.

    Back in the day, privacy was seen as having value. Now, not so much and that's going to come back to bite a lot of people in the rear. It's not even that you're necessarily saying awful things or putting incriminating things out there. It's just a matter of retaining your own life for yourself and those you know best without having a semi-public, permanent cataloging of it on some disinterested companies website. Not everything needs to be nor should be digitally preserved.
  • Google: the devil guarding the henhouse.

    Google's business plan is to capture as much information about every person in the world, and use it to Google's business advantage.

    Their mission statement is equivalent to that of a stalker, except that, Google is stalking everybody on the planet that gets on any of their properties and services.

    Google is as credible about a "delete button" as a thief is about breaking into someone's home to insure that everyone is safe.
  • Straight up and bald faced

    "'I propose that at the age of 18, you should, just as a policy, change your name. Then you can say, 'That really wasn't me; I really didn't do that!'' Schmidt said at the conference."

    Would this apply to a just-under 18yr old having consensual sex with a 13 year old, which is statutory rape? My guess- the sex offender registry will get your real name, and you won't be changing it.

    Mr. Schmidt: are you suggesting that flat-out lying is the solution to foolish stupidity? Is this what you do when Google does something stupid??

    Yes, the world is unfair, to minorities, gays and the foolish young. Grow up. Deal with it. Build a character, and therefore a reputation which cannot be impugned. And realize that if you persist in doing that which is evil or shameful, changing your name won't matter... your deeds will find you out.
  • This is insane...

    Wow, one of the men responsible for making privacy nonexistent believing that people shouldn't have anything worth hiding (2009) has now turned around and said we need a delete button? Well duh... if he was smart enough to envision the changes Google would make on the world today, (I remember watching a video in high school back in '99 on how Google would connect the world where it was evident to me then as a senior that privacy would be transparent), then he obviously had enough insight to understand this would be an issue one day.

    This means he either turned over a new leaf (I doubt) or knew he could one day capitalize on it. "Hey for $XXXX we can erase your past!!"

    Tate, R. (2009). Google CEO: Secrets Are for Filthy People. Retrieved from
    • No edit button but...

      There is a reason they say that, "Fences make for great neighbors."
  • "free market"

    really Schmidt? No such thing. The market is merely a game where tools exploit fools for the exclusive benefit of the elite. The thing that we call a free market is neither free nor a market. It is the killing field of freedom and democracy.