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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.)

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