September 3, 2006
The first thing that came out of our mouths when
we heard that Google is working on a system that listens to what's on your
TV playing in the background, and then serves you relevant adverts, was
"that's cool, but dangerous".
The idea appeared in Technology Review citing Peter Norvig, director
of research at Google, who says these ideas will show up eventually in real
Google products - sooner rather than later.
The idea is to use the existing PC microphone to listen to whatever is heard
in the background, be it music, your phone going off or the TV turned down.
The PC then identifies it, using fingerprinting, and then shows you relevant
content, whether that's adverts or search results, or a chat room on the
And, of course, we wouldn’t put it past Google to store that information
away, along with the search terms it keeps that you've used, and the web
pages you have visited, to help it create a personalized profile that feeds
you just the right kind of adverts/content. And given that it is trying to
develop alternative approaches to TV advertising, it could go the extra step
and help send "content relevant" advertising to your TV as well.
We suspect that such a world would be rather eerie, with a constant feeling
of déjà vu every time anyone watched TV.
Technology Review said Google talked about this software in Europe
last June, and that it breaks sound into a five-second snippets to pick out
audio from a TV, reducing the snippet to a digital "fingerprint", which it
matches on an internet server.
Given the furore caused when AOL released searches on the internet, there
might be more than a few civil liberties activists less than happy for
Google to put this idea into practice. Also, given that Google provides the
software link between its search software and the microphone, it's a small
step to making the same link to any webcams attached to the PC.
Pretty soon the security industry is going to find a way to hijack the
Google feed and use it for full on espionage.
Google says that its fingerprinting technology makes it impossible
for the company (or anyone else) to eavesdrop on other sounds in the room,
such as personal conversations, because the conversion to a fingerprint is
made on the PC, and a fingerprint can't be reversed, as it's only an
But we should think that "spyware" might take on an extra meaning if someone
less scrupulous decided on a similar piece of software.
The Google program converts sound into graphs, weeds out background noise,
and reduces the graphs to key features that can then be translated into just
four bytes of information, so that the fingerprints for an entire year of
television programming would add up to no more than a few gigabytes, the
Meanwhile, in an unconnected announcement this week, Google said it has
signed a multi-year agreement with online auction giant eBay, to provide
text-based advertising outside the US.
The companies also plan to launch a "click-to-call" advertising function on
eBay using Skype and Google Talk.