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Friday, June 7, 2013

Google Takeout means something else in light of PRISM

[Hey! If you don't want a movie from 28 years ago to be spoiled, avert your eyes and scroll down to the picture of two guys, then start reading from there.]

Laser firing

Perhaps you've seen the movie "Real Genius" from 1985. There's a lot of stuff which happens, but the important part is that a couple of college kids wind up building a laser with a ridiculous amount of power output. It takes them a while to get it right, but when it works, it's more destructive than they ever imagined.


When it fires, it goes through the steel target, a brick backing wall, some kind of shade over the window, the window itself, and then flies out into the open. It cuts through a tree and a statue and winds up putting a flaming hole in a billboard some distance from campus.

The students go into the burger joint under the billboard to celebrate their accomplishment. That's when the scary-smart weirdo who's been living under the school shows up, and he's not excited. It's quite the opposite, really. He's rather concerned.


He basically asks them what the point of a system would be. It destroys anything it reaches, it can only fire for a short period of time, and it requires an immense amount of power. The students say it's up to the engineers to figure it out. They don't care. He suggests something further: what if the use already is known? It might be used to vaporize a human target from space. All you'd need is a large spinning mirror.

They freak out and run back to the lab, where they find the laser is gone, and so is "Kent's mirror". One of the other students (Kent) had been working on ... a giant mirror. It all made sense now. A huge laser, a spinning mirror, and only one way to use it, and now it's all been "appropriated" from the lab? Bad news.

The mirror

[No spoilers past this point. You really should see this movie.]

With that pattern in mind, I wish to present something for everyone to consider. There's something called "Google Takeout". It lets you get a copy of the data you have on their servers: your mails, your Buzz posts, your e-mail/chat contacts, and more. I haven't used it in a couple of years so I don't know exactly how far it goes. I do know the people behind it really cared about making it as inclusive as possible.

This really exists. Go check it out if you don't believe me. I'll wait.

I remember when this team started. I seem to recall it was the idea of one guy in Chicago who decided it was the right thing to do (and it was). He got some other like-minded, freedom-loving individuals to throw in their 20% or whatever time, and it eventually grew to be the thing you see today.

They used it as a marketing point when it first launched. You might recall that Google and Facebook were having this battle over "lock-in", since Facebook apparently would scoop up your contact list and wouldn't let you get a copy of it. Google countered by blocking Facebook's importers and made a big deal about how they prevented "being trapped".

This is all well and good, but now let's consider this in light of this week's developments.

A place like Google has a lot of data in a lot of places. All of these projects store it in vastly different ways. Gmail had one storage system, Buzz had another, Docs had one way, Spreadsheets had another, your Contacts lived somewhere else, and so on. It would be mighty hard to provide this kind of stuff coherently and in mass quantities. You'd need a lot of access and a lot of knowledge about how it's all stored.

But... what if a tool existed to roll all of this stuff up? It would be a lot of work, but you could let it proceed because having such a tool would make for excellent PR. It would also make the engineers on the project feel good about themselves and the company.

Here's the craziest part: the engineers wouldn't even need to know that their tool might be used by anyone but the end users to download their own data. Why would they ever consider any alternatives? That would never happen, right?

Sorry, guys. I think your laser and mirror have been co-opted.