Chinese tech blog TechWeb recently reported that Sogou has begun internal testing on what it calls an “exploration engine”, a new smart service integrated with its web browser that recommends information based on users’ browsing patterns. The idea, apparently, is to break away from the old search pattern of keyword plus search window and instead offer users a more intuitive way to get access to the information they seek.
It’s an interesting idea –– although since it’s still in internal testing there is no way to be sure how well it actually works –– and it’s kind of service we’re seeing more and more often, both in China and around the world. As Internet access gets quicker, and computers get more powerful, tech companies can leverage mountains of user data stored on company servers to provide individual users with a more personalized experience.
This kind of service can be extremely convenient, but it also rings some alarm bells for privacy freaks like me. After all, using any service that requires sending your browsing data to a corporation means trusting that corporation not to misuse it and not to lose it through some combination of hacking or incompetence. Over just the past year, several web services I use have been hacked seriously enough that user data was compromised. Losing my username and password is bad enough; do I really want to trust these companies with my browsing data? My shopping history? My personal communications?
These are questions that everyone has a different answer to, and it is quite difficult to design software that meets everybody’s needs. Several months back, for example, I had a lengthy email exchange with Qihoo 360 CTO Alex Xu about privacy as it relates to that company’s antivirus software. I had noticed that it was sending the URL of every website that I visited back to a Qihoo server, presumably to cross-check it against the list of known malware and virus-ridden sites. Personally I wasn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of every URL that I visited being sent out across the web; Xu countered that for most users it was far preferable to downloading the massive list of harmful websites each day, which would eat up huge amounts of bandwidth and take up a lot of space on users’ computers.
In the end, I think we’re both right. There is no doubt that services like Sogou’s or Qihoo’s are quite convenient, and until there is a hacking incident or some other sort of data breach, it doesn’t really matter to most end-users whether or not those companies are seeing their data. But as web tools get smarter and more driven by individual data, the question of whether or not you trust the companies whose services you use becomes increasingly important. Just a few years ago, I didn’t need to trust Google with much because I only used the service for searches. Now, the company has everything from my email records to my photo albums; the question of whether or not I trust Google with this information becomes much more important.
I think that in Asia, and probably everywhere else, as we go forward the most important question about a service may become not ‘is the service good?’ but rather ‘do you trust the provider?’ And although the vast majority of service providers have no malicious intent, most end-users also have virtually no capability of effectively assessing whether or not a given company is trustworthy. As the web gets smarter, it’s also getting a little bit more risky. As more of our data enters the cloud, we have more to lose from leaks, hacks, and corporate missteps that leave our data in the hands of people we don’t trust.
This is an important lesson for users, of course, but it’s also important for startups. In designing the web and mobile services that will dominate the future, developers would be wise to take transparency and trustworthiness into account, and make it very clear to users not only how the service can help them but also what steps it is taking to ensure that it doesn’t accidentally hurt them.
This article by C. Custer originally appeared on Tech in Asia, a Burn Media publishing partner.