Exposed Online!

Wilson Yu

Nelson gets blackmailed by his own keyboard. It knows what he Googled last summer.

Greavances

Ham pants.

Internships in Malaysia.

What is the Pope’s name.

The preceding are three items I feel comfortable sharing from my Google Web History, the Google App that, like it or not, signed up for it or not, records the entirety of your cyber history in a searchable database. I’m talking what you searched, what you clicked on, and how good it made you feel. Records are kept down to the exact minute.

What’s that, Mr. Sneaky? You’re safe? You deleted your search history? Cute. Sneaky thinks he can escape the life that Google Inc. has prepared for him. Just search “how to escape from Google” on Google.

Despite the effort of Sneaky and his troop of naiveté scouts, a short hike to www.google.com/history reveals that they did not—and can not—delete their search histories. Even using the erasure methods of a sexually self-discovering 14-year-old boy (delete cache, clear history, and clear forms—always clear forms), the best anyone can do is destroy a carbon copy of their search details. But that’d be like trying to snuff George Washington by sitting on a quarter—plain stupid. No matter which god you pray to, Jesus, Buddha, or Google itself (visit www.thechurchofgoogle.org for more info), all of that search history is forever recorded on Google’s servers.

In reality, this practice has been the industry standard for years, so why the fuss now? Two reasons: first, prior to April 19, 2007, such information was not available to the consumer. Second, before Friday, January 29, 2010, I did not know such a feature existed. Google had never informed me.

So as I scrolled through my sordid searching past on Friday afternoon, I felt like I was reading an unintentional journal—a militantly accurate, mercilessly honest one that recalled the time in June 2008 when I googled “Jessica Alba” followed by 14 different verb combinations. Uncomfortable? Yes. Frightening? Yes. Flattering of Jessica Alba? Depends what you’re into.

But despite my general panic at the existence of Google Web History, I decided to look for its upsides. For instance, it turns out that Google has far surpassed me in its ability to record my life. None of the 14 journals I’ve ever started even came close. Not the one I glued to my dresser (to force me to write), not the one I kept on my computer (which I trashed after convincing myself it had been forwarded to my friends), and especially not my Xanga online journal.

By the way, bonus points if you can find my Xanga—it’s the self-important one about being an angsty teen; the one with a hearty endorsement of the Iraq War; the one that, if found, will prevent us from ever meeting eyes again.

But we were talking about privacy. Google’s practice of storing search history presents two problems. First, it locks us completely into our pasts. With all my interests and inquiries known and catalogued, how can I ever reinvent myself? Currently, my options are limited to joining some past-erasing spy agency or killing my friends and stealing their identities.

But I’m not crossing my fingers; the spy agencies aren’t hiring (what with this economy, amirite?), and my friends have proved impressively hard to kill (what with their robust abdomens).

The second problem, however, is even more troubling. Google’s practice of making search histories available to consumers—and by extension, hackers, the media, or anyone else who wants it badly enough—means that with every search we make, we must ask ourselves, would I be okay with the world knowing that I want to know?

As anyone who’s visited 4chan.com understands, anonymity is part of what makes the Internet a revolutionary tool, and quests for knowledge that are stymied by fears of public ridicule are barely distinguishable from those which are simply forbidden.

Am I saying we can put the informational cat back in the bag? No. Am I being paranoid? Sure, but sensibly so. After all, I’d be ruined if the world ever discovered my lifetime subscription to [removed by editor].

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