Spooky Spock

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’:

Myself 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:

Sania Mirza Spocked

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:

Anonymous Profile on Spock

(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?

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  • I had tried Spock a few months ago and found it inter­est­ing, though I couldn’t find myself in the search results 🙁

    It makes search­ing for peo­ple very easy,but there is a very good chance of this ser­vice being mis­used..

  • hmm. its scary. This is like google scan­ning our gmails and post­ing rel­e­vant ads on the side pan­el. Nev­er know what all they have. I can imag­ine a sci-fi movie being made in a cou­ple of years… some­one dis­cov­ers huge data­bas­es of ALL humans on earth… then they shoot a thrilling adven­ture movie try­ing to save the world from the evil IT cor­po­ra­tion..!!

  • Excel­lent post! Spooky indeed and it does raise some very inter­est­ing ques­tions.

    To me, “pub­licly avail­able and hence we can do what­ev­er we want with it” seems to have too much ambi­gu­i­ty to firm­ly stand on legal ground. But I guess it does. Besides I dont any­thing about legal­i­ty — it just seems like it can be mas­saged to what­ev­er you want. Besides hav­ing oth­ers tag on you — that seems wrong. They are sim­ply equat­ing “gen­er­al con­sen­sus” to truth­hood. While it gen­er­al­ly works, not always and can result in slander/libel?

    I think the prob­lem is per­haps many of us have a selective/filtered view of the inter­net and it is real­ly not an appro­pri­ate place to share any infor­ma­tion about our­selves. We have a lot of “trust” in the inter­net on infor­ma­tion about us would be used — too much trust. Under the cur­rent norms/rules, if we say/reveal some­thing about our­selves on the inter­net — be it a pub­lic forum, or a blog, or oth­er­wise, then that infor­ma­tion seems to be “pub­licly avail­able” and hence amenable to all sorts of pro­cess­ing like here. But most of the time
    (a) we reveal some views to “inter­net acquain­tances” as say in a dis­cus­sion forum. This is sort of like say­ing some­thing to a friend or friends at a small par­ty of known peo­ple. Noth­ing stops the friend(s) from share that info to oth­ers. We just that trust that it wont hap­pen, and if it does, the friend­ship is bro­ken. The dam­age can be lim­it­ed and we are also per­haps able to assess the risk before-hand. But with the inter­net and risk and the poten­tial for dam­age is expo­nen­tial and also unbound­ed. But we nev­er think of it that way — we just trust that “no one else will notice”.
    (b) We reveal the info in the hope of mak­ing inter­net acquan­tances (as in a blog). Our expec­ta­tion is that this info would not be “mis­used” i.e used in ways we don’t approve of. We hope to make acquain­tances with peo­ple who share our views or can debate our views in an inter­est­ing way. But doing this in the inter­net is not ide­al and we are tak­ing a risk. It is like sud­den­ly announc­ing your pri­vate views in the mid­dle of a city fes­ti­val where there are thou­sands of peo­ple, and hop­ing only “like-mind­ed” peo­ple would care about them.

    Ques­tion: If in our blog and say every­time we post on a forum, we put a dis­claimer “My views can­not be used, repro­duced in part of ful­ly with­out express writ­ten per­mis­sion from me” — then would Spock hon­or it? If not wouldn’t that be on shaky legal ground?

  • sor­ry for the long com­ment! (plus an extra com­ment to say that!)

  • Cap­tain KA to Sci­ence Offi­cer: Spock, Give me a read­ing on…myself
    Spock: (rais­es eye­brows) Inter­est­ing. I find no traces of you in the sys­tem
    Cap­tain KA: What do you mean, no traces? I am 71 kg and 5–9. This is unac­cept­able
    Spock: Humans, and their emo­tions. Very strange. I believe try­ing to sign up might help
    Cap­tain KA: Oh. Ok. Sor­ry. My bad. Scot­ty, Warp 2 to Plan­et Signup

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  • Great post and great com­ments, too!

    I’m wor­ried by this new tech­nol­o­gy. It seems far too open to abuse.

    My blog is copy­right­ed: I won­der if that in any way pro­tects me. I should assume it does not.

    I think I’ll just have to learn to be much more dis­crete in what I say about myself on the net.

    Also, I won­der if Spock can tell the dif­fer­ence between fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion and remarks made in jest? Let me test that: “I, Paul Sun­stone, own stock val­ued at over a mil­lion US dol­lars.” Now, if at any time in the next few years I start get­ting mar­riage pro­pos­als from numer­ous peo­ple I’ve nev­er met, I will know Spock has no sense of humor. 🙂

  • Great post.. I have not been spocked 🙁

  • Paul,
    We should all be wor­ried. Spock real­ly does have no sense of humour. He is after all half Vul­can.

  • Arun: No prob­lems with the long post, and your com­ment is very insight­ful and very true. You have beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed how we trust the Inter­net more than we should. What makes Spock scary is that it is able to aggre­gate all the bits and pieces we’ve strewn about here and there, and make sense of it in a scary way.

    Regard­ing the legal­i­ty of Spock’s use of the ‘pub­licly avail­able’ infor­ma­tion, even I’m not a legal expert. Spock’s claims to pri­va­cy pro­tec­tion include not going behind fire­walls, and not going through pass­word pro­tect­ed sites. The lat­ter is absolute­ly flim­sy, since it excludes sites where the pub­lic can reg­is­ter them­selves and then access oth­er reg­is­tered user’s profiles/blogs/forum messages/comments/etc. From a devil’s advo­cate per­spec­tive — they’re cor­rect in claim­ing that such info is also ‘pub­licly avail­able’ since any­one can reg­is­ter and access the infor­ma­tion.

    My (cur­rent) hypo­thet­i­cal answer to your ques­tion would be that:
    1. The term ‘my views can­not be repro­duced’ has no stand­ing. It is being word­ed in the con­text of the copy­right laws, where you state ‘no con­tent on this web­site can be repro­duced…’. The sad part is, Spock doesn’t infringe on copy­right laws since it doesn’t repro­duce any con­tent — it sim­ply links to it.

    2. When we blog on host­ed sites, com­ment on forums host­ed on oth­er sites, we do not fun­da­men­tal­ly own that con­tent — what­ev­er legal notices you may append to it are null and void. The ques­tion aris­es when you host your own site on your own domain. In that case, there’s some chance of putting up such a notice. I’m not sure how firm/shaky the legal stand would be how­ev­er, if your site is ful­ly acces­si­ble by the pub­lic, includ­ing search engines and bots.

    That’s why ulti­mate­ly, if you don’t want your views to be known to every­one in cyber­space, don’t express them in any pub­licly acces­si­ble site.

  • Harsha/Oemar: wait a while. It took a dozen com­put­ers more than 18 years to crack the game of check­ers. With 6.6 bil­lion human beings, many more web pages to ana­lyze, with thou­sands of ‘attrib­ut­es’, I reck­on it will take them at least a cou­ple of years. 🙂

    Paul: Wel­come to my blog. You have a very, very inter­est­ing take! LOL! 🙂 Jokes apart, those Ph.Ds. behind Spock who’ve devel­oped the nat­ur­al lan­guage pro­cess­ing algo­rithms would prob­a­bly have con­sid­ered humor, but I real­ly don’t think they would have con­quered it yet. Humor remains one of the last fron­tiers behind which humans may still pro­tect them­selves against cold bru­tal num­ber-crunch­ing log­ic. (But note: the word ‘jest’ in close prox­im­i­ty to a fact may be a vital clue to Spock) 🙂

    Krish: LOL!!! 🙂

  • I have to agree with the state­ment that you should not express views that you do not want the entire world to know about pub­licly. In fact, there have been cas­es of peo­ple fired for stuff they wrote on pri­vate blogs. Just recent­ly a fel­low jew­el­er was ter­mi­nat­ed from an edi­to­r­i­al post at a major jew­el­ers mag­a­zine for post­ing her (neg­a­tive) opin­ion about a spe­cif­ic type of pre­cious met­al clay on a friends blog.

    I am very open about my life on my blog, but I own a busi­ness. I do not have to answer to any­one except myself and my fam­i­ly. Luck­i­ly they are very accept­ing of my will­ing­ness to just spill my guts on the www.

    But if I did work for some­one else, I would be much more care­ful.

  • You need look no fur­ther than this hum­ble soul. I am an open book. But I work for myself. I couldn’t give a damn about the world.
    But then that is the way I deal with life: straight and in-your-face! This is not meant to be a crit­i­cism of any­one or any­thing.

  • I must have tem­porar­i­ly left my brains (in the Oper­a­tion the­ater with my cap) when I wrote that puerile, off-top­ic shit. Deserves to be delet­ed. Or deserves to stay there to remind me how much of an ass I can be some­times!
    🙂

  • ram­bodoc -

    As long as you are will­ing to own it, being an ass is not all that bad. Hell, if at least a few peo­ple con­sid­er you a pompous, self-right­eous jerk then you are prob­a­bly doing some­thing right.

    Not that I think you are an ass. I don’t know you well enough to make such a call. But, you know, just shar­ing. You could be the one sur­geon in the world with­out a god com­plex, who knows?

  • Oh christ, I hope that did not offend. I come from a long line of sur­geons and I think the god com­plex is kind of nec­es­sary when you are cut­ting some­one open. Sor­ry if I offend­ed any­one. O.K., I should shut up now.

  • Aika­ter­ine,
    Naaah! You don’t offend me none! Not till you open your mouth, any­ways!
    🙂
    (jes’ kid­din’!)

  • Great, I get to add you to the long list of oth­er peo­ple that have said that to me. I won­der if the fates are try­ing to tell me some­thing?

  • Knock, knock.…, hul­lo, where is the blog own­er these days?
    Pos­si­bly com­pos­ing a mega-researched and dou­ble hyper­linked mag­num opus on how Darwin’s great grand­fa­ther pre­dict­ed that African ele­phants would be elim­i­nat­ed by a mete­or cre­at­ed by a chunk of moon-rock bro­ken off by a drunk Indi­an astro­naut in a NASA space mis­sion, fol­lowed by com­ments from sundry docs that these ele­phants deserve to be eat­en any­ways before the mete­or hits them, and counter argu­ments from Amer­i­can Greeks that the ele­phants have rights and need to be housed under the Taj Mahal to pro­tect them. Of course, the final icing on the cake would be from a cer­tain Madrasi blog­ger who would play a piece of Himesh music in forty dif­fer­ent ways to show how the reverse the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion affects the music indus­try where­by men become apes.
    And so on.…
    (do I even need to put in a smi­ley after this?)

  • ROTFL!!! LOL!!! Ram­bodoc, you have me in splits! 😀

    Sor­ry folks, no mag­num opus in the works. Just when I was get­ting afraid that I was get­ting addict­ed to the blo­gos­phere, the gods deter­mined I stay away from it the whole of the past week. One day in the Nia­gara falls in Mum­bai, two full days in off-site train­ing, my baby daugh­ter not keep­ing well, and so on — many things coa­lesced to keep me away from my blog, for­get even my friend’s blogs. Kept snatch­ing time when­ev­er I could with­out much suc­cess.

    Ram­bodoc: I almost thought of using your com­ment as a blog post! 🙂

  • Yeah, some­times I write more than you in your own blog! 🙂

  • Mahen­dra -

    It is good to hear from you. I hope that your daugh­ter is o.k.

    Ram­bodoc -

    Although I dis­agree with every philo­soph­i­cal view­point you have espoused, I must admit that you are smart and fun­ny. Which is refresh­ing. And it makes you a plea­sure to argue with.

  • a real­ly good post Mahen­dra! spooky is the word! am going to check out if i am around on spock. best to be care­ful of what one writes on the net, even in a com­ment. this is going to make me dou­bly care­ful

  • i am not on spock thank god! i think they must be doing the face­book peo­ple or some­thing. i do have an orkut account but there’s much there. guess i will remain anony­mous for a while. 🙂

  • Nita: Just like I said to Har­sha and Oemar, just wait a while. Spock already knows one Dr. Nita Kulka­rni. While you can enjoy your anonymi­ty for a while, there’s no way you can avoid get­ting Spocked!

  • Aikaterene: yes, my daugh­ter is now much bet­ter. Thank you.

  • And btw, I know that Dr. Nita Mad­hukar Kulka­rni! She is my cousins’s cousin! Though we share the sur­name Kulka­rni she is not relat­ed to me from my husband’s side, but from my mother’s side. My mavas bahin’s atyabahin. We always make a joke about the same name.

  • See? Spock’s get­ting there, albeit slow­ly. He’s creep­ing up on you, slow­ly…

  • I fear the police will have a hey­day with Spock. Sure, some­times they might use it to catch crooks and crim­i­nals. But I wor­ry they might also use it to cre­ate files on dis­si­dents and activists.

  • Paul: That would cer­tain­ly be true in Chi­na and Iran! I hope that this doesn’t hap­pen in democ­ra­cies!