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Web firms’ rising ambitions spook 51% in US survey

Reuters, SAN FRANCISCO

The personal-data-gathering abilities of Google Inc, Facebook Inc and other tech companies has sparked growing unease among people in the US, with a majority worried that Internet companies are encroaching too much upon their lives, a new poll showed.

Google and Facebook generally topped lists of respondents’ concerns about firms’ ability to track physical locations and monitor spending habits and personal communications, according to a poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos from March 11 to March 26.

The survey highlights a growing ambivalence toward Web companies whose popular online services, such as social networking, e-commerce and search, have blossomed into becoming some of the world’s largest businesses.

Now, as the boundaries between Web products and real-world services blur, many of the top Internet companies are racing to claim everything from home appliances to drones and automobiles.

With billions of dollars in cash, high stock prices and an appetite for more user data, Google, Facebook, Amazon Inc and others are acquiring a wide set of companies and launching ambitious projects.

However, the firms’ grand ambitions are inciting concern, according to the poll of nearly 5,000 people in the US. Of 4,781 respondents, 51 percent replied “yes” when asked if those three companies, plus Apple Inc, Microsoft Corp and Twitter Inc, were pushing too far and expanding into too many areas of people’s lives.

Fears about the expanding abilities of tech companies crystallized when Google said in 2010 that its fleet of StreetView cars, which criss-cross the globe taking panoramic photos for Google’s online mapping service, had inadvertently collected e-mails and other personal information from unencrypted home wireless networks.

Google is one of the most aggressively ambitious firms, investing in the connected home through its US$3.2 billion acquisition of smart thermostat maker Nest. Google is also investing in self-driving cars, augmented-reality glasses, robots and drones.

Almost a third of respondents say they know nothing about plans by Google and its rivals to get into such products as phones, cars and appliances. Still, about two-thirds of respondents are already worried about what Internet companies will do with the personal information they collect, or with how securely they store the data.

“We’re getting to a point in society where basically everything’s going to be tracked,” said Richard Armitage, a 46-year-old budget analyst in Colorado who participated in the survey. “They have access to so much data that they could use inappropriately, in my opinion.”

Public sensitivity about privacy was heightened by revelations of US surveillance by the National Security Agency, as leaked by former contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who recently wrote a paper about the legal and social implications of robotics.

Those concerns will become even more pressing as Web firms widen their activities, said Marc Rotenberg, director of privacy advocacy group EPIC.

“The links between the online world and the offline world are growing tighter,” he said. “It’s no longer unplugging your laptop and walking away and rejoining the physical world, because the online world is now following you,” he said.

Google has said it will not combine user data from Nest products with the data it collects about users of its Internet-based services, but some privacy advocates remain concerned.

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