This is the spookiest thing I’ve ever seen on the Internet yet. A revolutionary people-focused search engine, Spock, launched into public beta today.
About 30% of all search traffic is people related – about 20 billion search queries per month. How is it different from Google or other mainstream search engines? If you Google “boxer”, you’ll get the Wikipedia entry for boxer dogs. Spock will give you Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson.
Spock scans social networks such as LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, and other sites like Wikipedia, Flickr, and blogs. It then pulls that information into a concise summary about a person, such as his occupation, interests, age, marital status, photo, religious affiliations, and hometown. A click on the summary reveals related Web sites and known associates.
I decided to check how far I had been ‘spocked':
Wow. It already knows I work in the IT industry, though it got my title wrong. But, this shows it has already crawled my LinkedIn profile. Since I am virtually a nobody on this planet, let’s check out what Spock comes up with for an Indian sportswoman currently in the news for her stellar performance:
Notice how it has correlated her Wikipedia entry with her photograph on a magazine cover, and with her fan sites. “Disambiguating people, and then collapsing multiple sources of information into a single entry, or entity resolution, is part of the secret sauce of a people search engine.”, says Tim O’Reilly, who seems excited about Spock. That’s not all.
As a community user, I can add my own ‘tags’ to this person. I can, for example, tag her as “stupid” or “sexy”. Me and other community members are able to ‘vote’ a tag ‘up or down’. What is alarming is that even if you “claim your profile”, the Spock community gets the final say in the vote, as per this Time article.
How easily can this be used for snooping, privacy intrusion, and humiliation? Let’s say I’m a male student spurned by a girl in college. I tag her as “easy” on Spock. My friends and their friends vote the tag up. Another college student, who has heard rumors about an easily available girl in college, searches for her on Spock. And gets all the information he needs to start intruding her private life. As a more family friendly experiment, I searched for a female student using a common Indian first name:
(I’ve deliberately obfuscated the last name to respect the person’s privacy). I did not use any special tags, at all. The link to the MySpace site told me more about the person than, in this case, I wanted to know.
Spock has already ‘indexed’ over 100 million people. It doesn’t just crawl and index metadata. It tries to figure out who each document and web page is about.
Spock is not driving around town taking photographs of streets and shooting your pets or living room like Google. But it is driving through each and every narrow street, lane, path and avenue of cyberspace, while looking at you, what you’ve done, your relatives and friends, and trying to understand and make sense of it all. You think such a site will be banned? Forget that, even getting your own profile deleted may be legally difficult, according to Time.
This beast has only discovered my LinkedIn profile yet. Then it will discover me on Orkut. Once it crawls my blog, it will understand that the ‘About Me’ page really talks about me, and extract tags about my beliefs from it. It would probably guess from the URL of my blog that ‘mahendrap’ is my username on WordPress. It will then be able to link all the comments I’ve ever made in the blogosphere to me. It will crawl Flickr and YouTube and find pictures and videos. And like Mr. Spock, it will be completely unemotional about it all. It will methodically gather, process, and organize everything it finds about me. Can anything ever be spookier?