In Tim Berners-Lee’s testimony before a House of Commons committee on internet privacy on wednesday, he drew attention to the potential for snooping on the data trial we leave behind on Google. “We use the internet without a thought that a third party would know what we have just clicked on”, said the inventor of the web. “Yet the URLs [webpages] people use reveal a huge amount about their lives, loves, hates and fears. This is extremely sensitive information.”
I interviewed Berners-Lee for Cyburbia, and very interesting he was too. But what can this kind of information really tell us? In the course of writing Cyburbia, I unearthed a series of leaked searches made on AOL’s search engine in 2006 which also made their way onto Google’s servers, and used edited searches for three distinct users to reconstruct something of the story of their lives. Here is just one example. The anonymous internet user seems to be a young woman, and the three months of chronological searches that we have for her tells us a great deal about her life and her mental state. At the beginning of March 2006, she appears to be in the early stages of pregnancy:
2006-03-01 18:54:10 Body fat calliper
2006-03-05 08:53:23 Curb morning sickness
2006-03-09 18:49:37 Get fit while pregnant
Two days later, her mood seems to darken.
2006-03-11 03:52:01. He doesn’t want the baby
2006-03-11 03:52:58. You’re pregnant he doesn’t want the baby
Soon things are back to normal, and her enthusiasm for having the baby returns.
2006-03-14 19:11:28. Baby names and meanings
2006-03-28 09:28:25. Maternity clothes
2006-03-29 10:01:39. Pregnancy workout videos
2006-03-29 10:12:38. Buns of steel video
It’s not long, however, before user 672368 seems to be having second thoughts.
2006-04-17 11:00:02 Abortion clinics charlotte nc
2006-04-17 11:40:22 Greater Carolinas Womens Center
2006-04-17 21:14:19 Can Christians be forgiven for abortion
2006-04-17 22:22:07 Roe vs. Wade
2006-04-18 06:50:34 Effects of abortion on fibroids
2006-04-18 15:14:03 Abortion clinic charlotte
2006-04-18 16:14:07 Symptoms of miscarriage
A few days later, she is thinking about engagement rings.
2006-04-20 16:58:37 Engagement rings
On the same day, however, abortion is still weighing on user 672368’s mind.
2006-04-20 17:53:49 High-risk abortions
Two days later, the decision seems to have been made on her behalf.
2006-05-22 18:17:53 Recover after miscarriage
Only several days later, her thoughts turn once again to marriage.
2006-05-06 21:22:18 www.weddingchannel.org
2006-05-26 19:32:52 Demetrios bridesmaid dresses
2006-05-27 07:25:45 Marry your live-in.
What this seems to be is the affecting and real-life story of one young woman’s pregnancy, her subsequent wrestle with the fact that her baby might be not be wanted by her partner, and her eventually miscarriage. All of this, of course, can only be inferred. No one can really know what is going on inside the heads of internet users just from the keywords that they type, because the internet is not a complete approximation our thought processes. Does it send a shiver up anyone’s spine? Or not?