What the Search Engines Have Found Out About All of Us
Gasta.com European Search Network
Google has released its map of the national brain and appetites for 2008, and it turns out that many, many people across America have been asking the Internet “what is love?” and “how to kiss.”
And to tighten the focus, Google has also provided a list of search queries made by people sitting at computers in New York City.
It turns out that New Yorkers are looking for something a bit different. On a list of the 10 subjects that posted the greatest increases this year, the country as a whole was looking for Fox News and information about David Cook, the “American Idol” champion.
Neither made the New York list. Then again, the national list did not have 2 of the city’s top 10: Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus architecture school, and the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile circular underground tunnel in Switzerland that was built to smash protons into each other at the speed of light.
No doubt someone out in cyberspace can explain the surge of interest this year in Gropius, who has been dead since 1969 and has only one structure of any note in the city, the former Pan Am building.
The collider is easier to understand. There were worries that the crash of protons would instantly create a black hole, but in good news that was widely overlooked at the time, no hole appeared — or is it disappeared? — on Sept. 10, the day the machine was turned on. Search-engine interest in the collider promptly dropped off, as people pointed their anxieties and inquiries toward “Wall Street.” (The collider is currently on the fritz, as is Wall Street.)
On the surface, these kinds of lists are supposed to reveal what Google calls the zeitgeist of 2008, though it’s not much of a surprise that people were interested in Sarah Palin and Barack Obama. But they also provide hints of the level of personal details that people are now turning over to search engines and related businesses without much awareness.
The lists, said Lt. Col. Greg Conti, a professor of computer science at West Point, “are just major tsunami-type activities, big waves in the online searches.”
Professor Conti, the author of “Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You?” (Addison-Wesley, 2008), contends that Google’s internal tools make it possible to develop detailed pictures of individual interests, not just of masses of teenagers looking for the very latest about Miley Cyrus.
“A complete picture of us as individuals and as companies emerges — political leanings, medical conditions, business acquisitions signaled by job searches,” he said. “It would be very scary if we could play back every search we made. Those can be tied back very precisely to an individual. You can go all the way from individual molecules of water up to the tsunami.”
INFORMATION on the Web looks free, but it is actually swapped for little bits of data that are useful to businesses. Google records Internet protocol addresses that are generated by each computer, cookies permitted by the users, the kind of browser being used, and the operating system of the computer, said Heather Spain, a spokeswoman for Google.
After nine months, Ms. Spain said, Google “anonymises” the data it has collected.
“At that point we permanently delete the last two digits from both the I.P. address and parts of the cookie numbers,” she said. “This breaks the link between the search query and the computer it was entered from. It’s similar to the way in which credit card companies replace digits with hash marks on receipts to improve their customers’ security.”
Professor Conti said that few people have the slightest idea how much of a trail they leave across the Internet. “People tend to think they’re only leaving footprints on sites that they trust,” he said, but many Web sites contain invisible code, like Google Analytics, that can track users over swaths of the Web.
The lists of popular searches, Ms. Spain said, are the products of inquiries by millions of people and do not threaten anyone’s privacy. The tools Google provides to the public for analyzing searches generally make it possible to look at the inquiries made in a particular state, not by individual cities.
For now, surrendering personal information is the cost for asking questions and getting answers quickly. All of the privacy measures are cumbersome.
“I speak about this at hacker conferences,” Professor Conti said, “and if they say something’s hard to use, believe me, it’s hard. There’s really no solution now — except abstinence. And if you choose not to use online tools, you’re not a member of the 21st century.”
By JIM DWYER