Google, Smartphone Contacts & Social Graphs: Has Eric Schmidt Crossed The Creepy Line Again?

Eric SchmidtThings have been a little quiet — perhaps even boring — since Eric Schmidt stepped down as Google’s CEO to become the company’s Executive Chairman. The strange quotes and not-so-funny attempts at cracking privacy-related jokes have slowed down in the past couple months.

But Schmidt may have just added another one to his collection of so-called “creepy” quotes.

It’s in an article/interview from London’s Evening Standard. The reporter asks Schmidt the obligatory question about Facebook and social networking and, in the process of explaining Google’s approach to social, Schmidt appears to suggest that Google has its eyes on something involving contacts stored on smartphones — Android smartphones, that is. From the article, with emphasis added by me:

What about Facebook as a competitor? Schmidt believes Google has a future in social networking – but of a different sort. “We are particularly good at search, advertising, maps, YouTube, navigation, other internet services. What we are doing is basically trying to get people to either give us or discover their ‘social graphs’ … A simple version of your social graph is your friends on Facebook – and an even more interesting list of your social graph is the people on your phone, right? By the way, who has the largest number of phones, smart phones?” He grins like a digital Cheshire cat. “Mm, we do.”

Of course, not being able to hear the quote directly as part of the overall conversation means there’s a chance this has been taken out of context. But, then again, given Schmidt’s history of controversial quotes, this kind of statement is going to raise plenty of eyebrows no matter the context.

Would Google Use Phone Contacts In This Way?

Google has previously used personal contact information to try building a social graph. That happened during the Google Buzz launch, when Gmail contacts were automatically added to users’ Buzz network. That prompted immediately negative backlash in some quarters, not to mention a number of lawsuits and an eventual settlement with the FTC.

We asked Google to clarify these latest statements, but the company declined to do so. A spokesperson told us they don’t have anything to add beyond Schmidt’s comments.

Schmidt has made plenty of news in the past for a variety of alarming quotes. He often says they’re just jokes, but in light of Google’s size and reach — not to mention some notable privacy mistakes — some are sensitive to his attempts at humor, and others aren’t certain that’s what they really are. For more background, see the stories we’ve linked to below.

(Photo courtesy jolieodell. Used under Creative Commons license.)

Related Topics: Channel: Mobile | Google: Android | Google: Critics | Google: Employees | Legal: Privacy | Top News


About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • Scott Krager

    At this point I just assume Google/Facebook know everything about me. I don’t trust anyone online much anymore. Even if a company wants to keep information private, more and more hackers (see PSN) are ruining the fun.

    It’s buyer beware again.


  • David_lou

    What’s wrong with that quote?! and why are you ‘mining’ quotes to be outraged about? a social graph can be built through phone numbers there is nothing wrong with that, a user could be asked to add their phone contacts to any social graph.

    Please rise above this sort of foolery and ignore the PR requests asking you to write about them

  • V.M.

    I don’t even know all the contact on my phone list. Many of them are business contacts I met at networking meetings. Maybe sending a social networking invite would help rejuvenate leads.

  • Matt McGee

    Appreciate the comment, David, but I don’t believe I express any outrage in this article. Just reporting the news. Oh, and there’s no PR effort associated with this story, aside from the Google PR team’s (lack of) response, which I reported in the article.

  • Martin Lawrence

    The part that is verrry creepy is “get people to either give us or discover their ‘social graphs’. In context with mentioning people’s phone contects, that seems to Imply that google will discover my contacts without asking me. Seeing what Google attemted with Buzz – building a graph from contects without asking – it is not far fetched to assume that he was thinking along these lines.

    I actually don’t believe Schmidt realized what he was implying. He just seems plain clumsy sometimes. I definitely don’t trust for a moment that he has the people’s best interests at heart – all he sees is the battle for the social graph, which Google is currently losing.

  • Arjan ter Huurne

    Ahum… Facebook launched a new version of it’s iPhone and Android app two weeks ago where they ask you to utilise your phonebook contacts to search for new FB friends. Nothing to see here, move along please

  • Andy Kuiper

    FB and G try to out do each other by sneaking into our personal and private data: Priceless!

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