You Are What You Search

When I was a youngster, my grandma always said, or yelled rather, “you’re gonna turn into a damned grilled cheese sandwich!” because I ate them constantly. At first I had lovely visions of being all gooey and buttery but then I realized that Grandma was really just a forward thinker who first began to envision the notion of “You are what you search.” In my mind, at least. The problem is, you’re not.

There’s a great article in the September 18, 2007 PC Magazine. And no I do not regularly read this periodical. It was pointed out to me. It’s entitled “You Are What You Search” just like this post! I can’t believe they have the nerve to copy me. Anyway, it’s about Google’s Web History project, something you might not have paid too much attention to.

Basically, the article explains that Google’s Web History project can create a record of everything you have ever searched for, for as long as you let it run. You have to sign up for this, thank goodness. The question is, why on earth would you want to? There are better ways to keep up with what you search for and find online you know. Even though you can pause the functionality or delete past search results, you still have to worry about the potential for your data becoming public knowledge. If you’re automatically logged into iGoogle and, let’s say, it’s not you but someone else who is using your computer momentarily, this person now has access to your search history. There are other ways in which people could get this information, but the point is that your search history isn’t guaranteed to be private.

I’ve written about the dangers of being defined by what you do online, and it’s really a serious concern (not that it stops me from searching for everything from the size of gorilla testicles to dirty limericks about the Irish.) My last piece on this issue mainly dealt with the problems of machines determining intent, but let’s think about the human potential for misinterpretation here for a minute…and I will give you an example of how quickly this can happen, at the risk of really offending the person who did this search. Oh well, it’s all in the essence of enlightening the readers.

Someone, whom I shall refer to as Sid, let me use his computer to look something up once when mine wasn’t hooked up. I was attempting to view something Sid had recently shown me, but when I hit the back button I saw something that read “naked crit.” You can imagine that the r in “crit” seemed to be to simply be a misspelling, and I began to think Sid was a big sick monkey with ill intentions. However, after questioning Sid about his interest in naked crits, he explained that a naked crit is a bike race where people are naked. I was thus a bit placated about this but the point is that it was easily misinterpreted. I also thought that Google was a porn portal when I first saw it in a URL, since I read it as “Go ogle” and no, I am not joking.

What would someone think of you if he or she had access to YOUR web search history? With the misinterpretations made by humans and machines, it’s unfathomable to imagine. Maybe your boss wants to sit down and show you a bit of code that he thinks is better than what you have, and he gets on your computer. I once worked for someone who loved to do this, and really loved to accidentally click on flashing IM windows and pretend not to know what they were while she read them. Considering that I was not always at my most professional on IM, you can only imagine the names I was calling my friend Heather. Heather knew that I didn’t truly think she was a raging whore whose herpes test had just come back positive, but my boss didn’t get this. Plus, it’s not nice to call coworkers a whore, especially between the hours of 9am and 5pm. Usually.

This quote from Google really concerns me though…
“Web History is accessible only by signing in to your Google Account with your username and password. As long as you don’t share your username and password, your web history should remain completely private.” Notice the “should” bit about remaining completely private.

And this bit is even more worrying…
“Web History uses the information from your web history or other information you provide us to improve your Google search experience, such as improving the quality of your search results and providing recommendations. In addition to enabling the Web History functionality, the information we collect when you use Web History may be shared among all of our services in order to provide you with a seamless experience and to improve the quality of our services. We will not disclose this information to other companies or individuals, except in the limited circumstances described in our main Google Privacy Policy, or with your consent.” Do you want their recommendations? Do you want a seamless experience? Do you want to be used as a white mouse for their quality service testing?

As the article points out, most people are already having their searches tracked through Google’s PageRank features on its toolbar, and god only knows where else since not everyone is as forthright about it as Google. This Web History simply lets YOU see the data too. It actually makes me want to stop searching for “ninja kitten” all the time lest I be seen as someone whose chakras need to be manipulated. So think carefully before participating in this project. As I say, you’re still being tracked in some way most likely, but don’t go out of your way to participate in this type of thing. Just think of the ramifications of a full month of your personal usage history being compromised.


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