In 2006, AOL made an epic misjudgment. As part of a research project headed by Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, AOL made available to the public a massive amount of search data, releasing the search history of 650,000 users over a 3-month period. That totaled some twenty one million searches. Before releasing the data they anonymized it, stripping away user names and replacing them with numbers. Yet because of the nature of the data, people very quickly linked real people to abstract numbers--a massive violation of privacy and confidentiality. Within days AOL realized its mistake and withdrew the data. But already it had been copied and posted elsewhere on the internet where today it lives on in infamy.
Some searches were dark and disturbing, others unremarkable in every way, and still others strangely amusing. Often you could reconstruct a person's life, at least in part, from what they searched for over a period of time. Consider this user:
shipping pets 2006-03-01 16:36:48
does ata ship pets 2006-03-01 17:10:35
shipping pets 2006-03-01 21:33:30
continental.com 2006-03-01 21:34:53
pet shipping 2006-03-01 21:35:11
cat with broken bones diarreah and looks like blood 2006-03-04 03:14:52
broken bones in cat 2006-03-04 03:31:53
cat has broken bones above base of tail vet said it will heal on its own 2006-03-04 03:32:53
cat broken bones and diarreah 2006-03-04 03:58:24
do cats menstrate 2006-03-04 14:09:09
cat health 2006-03-04 14:10:22
cat has broken bones wasn't bleeding before but now is and now she can't defecate too 2006-03-04 14:16:35
mucous blood diarreah in cat 2006-03-04 14:22:47
The moral of this particular story seems to be that you don't want to pay for cheap shipping for your new cat.
This AOL data raised an endless number of questions and concerns. Primarily, it brought awareness to the fact that search engines know you better than you might like. Actually, they probably know you better than you know yourself in some ways--you forget what you search for; they don't. We may like to think that our searches are just searches, harmless and pointless inquiries known only to us. But the fact is that search engines keep all of that data and they keep it forever. Google has recently begun to strip personal identifiers from the data after a certain time period has elapsed, but from the AOL searches we can see that this is sometimes still not enough.
Here is an AOL user whose searches tell a sad story (for sake of space I have stripped out a large number of searches):
body fat calliper 2006-03-01 18:54:10
curb morning sickness 2006-03-05 08:53:23
get fit while pregnant 2006-03-09 18:49:37
he doesn't want the baby 2006-03-11 03:52:01
uou're pregnant he doesn't want the baby 2006-03-11 03:52:49
online degrees theology 2006-03-11 04:05:24
online christian colleges 2006-03-11 04:13:33
foods to eat when pregnant 2006-03-12 09:38:02
baby names 2006-03-14 19:11:10
baby names and meanings 2006-03-14 20:01:27
physician search 2006-03-23 10:20:04
best spa vacation deals 2006-03-27 20:04:09
maternity clothes 2006-03-28 09:28:25
pregnancy workout videos 2006-03-29 10:01:39
buns of steel video 2006-03-29 10:12:38
what is yoga 2006-03-29 12:17:31
what is theism 2006-03-29 12:18:30
hindu religion 2006-03-29 12:18:56
yoga and hindu 2006-03-29 12:32:05
is yoga alligned with christianity 2006-03-29 12:33:18
yoga and christianity 2006-03-29 12:33:42
abortion clinics charlotte nc 2006-04-17 11:00:02
greater carolinas womens center 2006-04-17 11:40:22
can christians be forgiven for abortion 2006-04-17 21:14:19
can christians be forgiven for abortion 2006-04-17 21:14:19
roe vs. wade 2006-04-17 22:22:07
effects of abortion on fibroids 2006-04-18 06:50:34
abortion clinic charlotte 2006-04-18 15:14:03
symptoms of miscarriage 2006-04-18 16:14:07
water aerobics charlotte nc 2006-04-18 19:41:27
abortion clinic chsrlotte nc 2006-04-18 21:45:39
total woman vitamins 2006-04-20 16:38:16
engagement gifts 2006-04-20 16:57:04
engagement rings 2006-04-20 16:58:37
mom's turning 50 2006-04-20 17:51:13
high risk abortions 2006-04-20 17:53:49
abortion fibroid 2006-04-20 17:55:18
benefits of water aerobics 2006-04-20 23:25:50
wedding gown styles 2006-04-26 19:37:34
recover after miscarriage 2006-05-22 18:17:53
marry your live-in 2006-05-27 07:25:45
This woman goes from searching about pregnancy, to realizing that the father does not want to keep the baby, to researching abortion clinics, to researching whether she can, according to her faith, choose abortion, to dealing with a miscarriage. And at the end of it all, life goes on and she seems ready to be married.
What is so amazing about these searches is the way people transition seamlessly from the normal and mundane to the outrageous and perverse. They are, thus, an apt reflection of real life. The user who is in one moment searching for information about a computer game may in the next be looking for the most violent pornography he can imagine. Back and forth it goes, from information about becoming a foster parent to the search for incestual pornography. One user went from searching for preteen pornography to searching for games appropriate for a youth group. Others, spurned lovers, sought out ways of exacting revenge while still others grappled with the moral implications of cheating on their spouses. These searches are a glimpse into the hearts of the people who made them.
This all raises two great questions in my mind. First, would I be prepared to have my searches revealed to the public? There are searches that may be private but not immoral--I may be looking for information on a medical condition, for example. That information might be embarrassing but I could remain unashamed before God. But there may also be searches that are private precisely because they are immoral. In such case shame would be the proper reaction. The second question is whether I would be prepared to address my search history with God. What would I say to him if he were to ask me about the things I have gone looking for online. Could I tell him with confidence that what I have sought is an indication of a heart that is aligned with his purposes? Or would I have to confess that my searches point to a heart that is drawn to what is evil and perverse?
While the search engines may never forget, I am grateful that God does forget. He forgets the sins of those who turn to him and confess those sins. Psalm 103 promises that "As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us." In Hebrews 8:12 God promises "I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." There is virtue in forgetting.
Tim Challies is a blogger and author of The Next Story, a forthcoming book about Christians and technology (Zondervan, 2011). "Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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