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Google boss warns over data stored on web

All young people will eventually be allowed to automatically change their name on reaching adulthood to escape their online past, Google boss Eric Schmidt has predicted.

As hundreds of millions of web users worldwide divulge increasing amounts of personal information on social networking and other sites, the search engine's chief executive warned they may not be aware of the consequences.

He told the Wall Street Journal: "I don't believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time."

He added: "I mean we really have to think about these things as a society. I'm not even talking about the really terrible stuff, terrorism and access to evil things."

But far from coming out as a social media sceptic, he described social networking site Facebook as a "company of consequence" and predicted one or two other major players would come on the scene in the near future.

Google itself has a wealth of data on web users, handling billions of emails through Gmail and myriad images of people's houses through Google Street View, as well as the information it has on online searches.

Mr Schmidt forecast that the future of Google would rely on the company storing more and more personal information about its users.

Because of the data the site collects, "we know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are", he said.

Rather than simply answering their questions, this may help Google tell users what they should be doing next, he suggested.

One idea for the future of the search engine is that more searches are done on the user's behalf without them needing to type, he said.

Mr Schmidt's comments on the social media phenomenon echoed previous concerns about young people in particular baring their souls online.

Many users of social networking sites have a wealth of information stored on the web, including embarrassing photographs, messages, chat histories and personal details.

Some commentators warn that it may be too late to turn back the clock.

Dylan Sharpe of Big Brother Watch said: "Undoubtedly we need to educate children, and many adults, for that matter, on the value of privacy.

"But with social networking growing in scope and popularity, the real question is - can we put Pandora back in her box?"

Press Association