How Google Tracks Everyone and Everything

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How Google Tracks Everyone and Everything at I/O 2013

Google want's to know everything, everywhere. Walking around Google I/O, one begins to notice many of these dispersed all around:


Reading the attached sign removes some of the mystery; it's a sensor placed there by Google to record the various conditions of the environment, including temperature, humidity, pressure, light, air quality, motion, and noise levels. Five hundred of these things scattered throughout Moscone are feeding over 4,000 data streams back to Google.

The idea for tracking and monitoring in real time the conference conditions came about after last year's Google I/O, where the Google Cloud Platform Developer Relations team wondered about where the busiest and loudest locations were. They also wondered where the best place would be to take a nap.

"We think about data problems all the time, and this looked like an interesting big data challenge that we could try to solve. So this year, we decided to try to answer our questions with a project that's a bit different, kind of futuristic, and maybe a little crazy," wrote Michael Manoochehri, Developer Programs Engineer, in the a Google blog. "Since we love open source hardware hacking as much as we love to share open source code, we decided to team up with the O'Reilly Data Sensing Lab to deploy hundreds of Arduino-based environmental sensors at Google I/O 2013."

Manoochehri continued, "In addition, our motes will be able to detect fluctuations in noise level, and some will be attached to footstep counters, to understand collective movement around the conference floor. Of course, since a key goal of Google I/O is to promote innovation in the open, the project's Cloud Platform code, the Arduino hardware designs, and even the data collected, will be open source and available online after the conference."

Even without 500 sensors, my singular person moving throughout the conference center could detect dramatic changes in noise, traffic, temperature – and yes – air quality too. The session rooms were dramatically warmer than the main hallways. The crowds were the worst when between sessions. Don't even try to get into a session on Google Glass; just watch the live video on YouTube. And only go into the men's washroom when you really, really have to go.

Google, being the information-obsessed company it is, sees this sort of real-time tracking as applicable in many other instances, such as city planning and consumer products. A retailer could put such data points to use in managing the insane foot traffic of holiday season. Perhaps shopping malls could make parking a less frustrating experience.

How Google Tracks Everyone and Everything at I/O 2013

Google Sensors Are Data Mining I/O Attendees - And They Don't Care

If you're visiting the Google I/O developers conference this week, you're a tiny part of a giant Google experiment to sniff out everything from your body heat to your breath. Google is even listening to your footfalls as part of its Data Sensing Lab I/O 2013.

Think that's a scary, Big-Brother invasion of privacy? The conference attendees I talked to didn't seem to mind. In fact, one wanted Google to collect even more data.

Google planted 525 powered sensors around the halls of San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center, and began collecting data from them on Wednesday, according to Michael Manoochehri, a developer programs engineer at Google. The company began measuring temperature, humidity, light, pressure (including nearby footfalls), motion, air quality and both RF and ambient noise. All of the data is sent back at intervals of 20 seconds or so, collected by Google's App Engine, with analysis performed by its BigQuery Big Data analysis tool. You can see the results at the Lab's dedicated Web site.

Among other things, Google's I/O developer conference has focused this year on improving developer tools and better integrating the services that it already owns via a more intelligent cloud. The unnamed sensor project, part of Google's Data Sensing Lab, encompasses a bit of all of that. By itself, knowing that the air quality diminished at 4a.m. might be intriguing, but not all that significant. But by correlating that information with a peak in another data stream - ambient noise, say - it becomes possible to guess what's going oin; in this case, perhaps, the arrival of the cleaning crew.

Manoochehri said that Google could build in queries against the sensor network into its Google I/O app, to identify the quietest spots on the floor for a phone call or a brief nap.

Crossing The Creepy Line?

Eric Schmidt, then the chief executive of Google, famously described Google's policy as "to get right up to the creepy line, but not cross it." When Google unified its privacy policy in March 2012, the company suggested that its unified services could anticipate an afternoon meeting and direct you to leave at a certain time. A year ago, that notion prompted righteous outrage from members of Congress, users and privacy advocates. A year later, that feature (now called Google Now) has been lauded as the herald of anticipatory search. (Six privacy advocates from the EU are still threatening action.)


It's probably fair to say that attendees of Google I/O give Google a bit more leeway than the general public. That certainly proved to be the case for those sitting near the sensors. Alan Holzman, a retired venture capitalist who last worked for Intel Capital, shrugged it off. "My life is tied to Google in much more significant ways," he noted.

Ditto for Sam Napolitano, who was covering Google I/O for the Huffington Post. Napolitano said he believed that the sensors were probably picking up on the NFC tag embedded within his name tag - something that Google employees said wasn't true. In any event, Napolitano said, he didn't care, as he had no expectations of privacy in a public space. "As long as it's not under my toilet seat, I don't care," Napolitano said of the sensors.

And "Rachid," an employee of Motorola Mobility who declined to give his last name, said he wanted to Google sample more data. More data and more correlation often derives more interesting results, he said, such as the various causes of depression. (...)

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Data Sensing Lab