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Crave Talk: Google snoops on your TV

The search leviathan is researching a system that would let your laptop find out what you're watching on TV and present you with related information or adverts

You've got to worry about Google. Not happy with watching our every keystroke while we're searching the Web, giving us email that reads what we're sending, and quietly plotting to give away free of charge every darn thing they ever do, it's now thinking how to teach our laptops to eavesdrop on our telly habits.

The idea's simple, say researchers Michele Covell and Shumeet Baluja on the Google research blog. Get the laptop's microphone to pick up the sound from the TV while you're watching it, check it against a database of programme audio, and the computer will know what you're watching. You can then talk online to other people who are watching the same programme, find out more information about it, or be sold the brand of shirt that the presenter is wearing. These people want to Google our entire lives, and dress us like Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Spooky? Not at all, say the inventors. The sound will be turned into a mathematical fingerprint before it's matched, so there's no chance of any in-room conversation between humans being relayed out to Google's giant artificial intelligences, even now plotting our downfall in their enormous underground vats. And the precise knowledge of what's being watched will be manna to TV schedulers and advertising agencies, who until now have been stuck with crude and error-prone methods of determining how many people are glued to Ready Steady Celebrity Antique Home Makeover.

The research paper is actually pretty clever, thoughtful and intriguing. They've considered a lot of problems, practical and potential, and shown that the idea really works. But none of that alters the fact that Google is sitting in your front room listening to your television via your laptop -- that's a step further than we want to take.

We may not get the choice though. Intel's medical division is already talking about using smart houses to follow every move their inhabitants take, not just to spot problems with people who live alone (such as them forgetting to take a pill), but to diagnose the first signs of illness. It won't be just our computers spying on us, but the furniture, doors, cookers and even toilets. You'd be amazed how much medical information gets flushed down the drain -- and if they're talking about health now, they'll be finding ways to target advertising later.

Poogle. It's only a matter of time. -Rupert Goodwins