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Despite assault on privacy, Page sees value in online openness

While criticizing US surveillance activities as a threat to democracy, Google's CEO says more sharing could also save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Google CEO Larry Page. Google

While Larry Page bemoans the deterioration of Internet privacy, the Google CEO also sees real benefit in more openness with medical histories.

In a rare public appearance at Wednesday's TED conference in Vancouver, Page called the US electronic surveillance programs, detailed in leaks to the media by Edward Snowden, and its lack of transparency in the matter a threat to democracy.

"For me, it's tremendously disappointing that the government sort of secretly did all these things and didn't tell us," Page said in a wide-ranging interview with Charlie Rose.

"I don't think we can have a democracy if we have to protect our users from the government [and] from stuff that we never had a conversation about," he said. "We need to know what the parameters of it is, what the surveillance is going to do, and how and why. The government did itself a tremendous disservice by doing that all in secret. ... I think we need to have a debate about that, or we can't have a functioning democracy."

However, Page worries that "we're throwing the baby out with the bathwater" when it comes to how people protect the privacy of their medical records, adding that he sees value in sharing with information with "the right people in the right ways." Page, who lost his voice for a time due to vocal cord paralysis, said it was Google co-founder Sergey Brin who persuaded him to discuss his condition openly, allowing him to connect with thousands of people online who had similar conditions.

"Wouldn't it be amazing if everyone's medical records were available anonymously to all medical researchers," he said, suggesting that it could save 100,000 lives a year.

Improving speech recognition was one of the motivations behind Google's recent purchase of artificial intelligence company DeepMind for a reported $400 million.

"I was looking at search and trying to understand how to make computers less clunky and also thinking about how speech recognition is not very good," Page said. "We are still at the very early stages with search. Computers don't know where you are and what you are doing."

Page also indicated that the company has lofty ambitions for Project Loon, the company's plan to harness souped-up weather balloons to provide Wi-Fi to remote parts of the world.

"We can build a worldwide mesh of balloons to cover the whole planet," he said.