Google, meet Babel Bombs

Don’t like google’s new privacy policy? I propose a new art form: the Babel Bomb, a list of unrelated (but esthetically pleasing) search terms guaranteed to baffle the algorithms.

By now, most of you who don’t live in caves have probably heard of Google’s new privacy policy. The policy’s professed purpose is to “provide better services to all of [Google’s] users.” This means, according to my Corporate-English dictionary, to make gobs of money by placing on our screens ads that closely track our searches, our gmail, our Google Music selections, and so on.

For now, it seems, we can opt out of having Google track our search history by changing the “Web History Controls” on our google accounts.  (Hayley Tsukayama of the Washington Post gives a short tutorial as to how, here. It’s purposely a bit fiddly, but doable.)  But I don’t trust that opt-out to stay active forever, and in any case using it wouldn’t prevent google from mining information from our email, our music choices, etc.

Quixotic though it may be, I propose a different method: regular purgatives. I propose that those who don’t like the new policy make a habit of every so often typing into their search bars, one by one, a series of terms unrelated to one’s actual interests and to one another. The idea is not to avoid Google’s algorithm but to confuse it.

Doing this will take a couple of minutes, and nobody will do it unless it’s fun. I therefore humbly propose a new art form: the Babel Bomb. The idea is to post on the web a series of terms that are unrelated but have a vague conceptual or verbal continuity about them that’s esthetically pleasing–or else, in an alternative, deconstructivist mode, have a deliberately jarring or contradictory quality that’s funny or stimulating. If Babel Bombs catch on, people can look for them on the web and get some fun out of detonating them. I got the idea from google bombs, of course, but also from Spy magazine’s “Spy list” of people who had nothing in common except that they were somehow indicative of the Zeitgeist (or not), as well as from my time fact-checking the Harper’s Index.

Below is one example, in a mix of the modernist and deconstructivist modes (tending towards the former). I’m sure others can do better. Feel free, in comments, to try.

Schizophrenia, Ron Paul, Corinthians, Ricardo Montalban, islands, John Donne, Dun & Bradstreet, Jenna Jameson, “Irish whisky,” clover, crimson, vampires, platelets, dishes, weddings, divorces, Kardashian, Nagorno-Karabakh, puppies, Hello Kitty, sticker shock, Baumol, Dettol, Geritol, grandfather clause, Santa Claus, elves, shelves, brackets, crackers, donuts, Homer Simpson, Samson, baggage, strawberry, shortcake, clambakes, beaches, Sneetches.

Update: Apparently this doesn’t work (see the comment by Rachel) and other things work better, at least for search engine privacy (see the comment by Katja), though none of us has a solution for gmail I don’t think. File this under “malign intellectual mutation,” I guess. Still: doesn’t anyone actually like my list? 😉

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

14 thoughts on “Google, meet Babel Bombs”

  1. There may be less annoying solutions.

    For example, you can simply use a different search engine (such as the oddly named duckduckgo.com) that isn’t tracking you.

    Second, you can automate your approach using Google Sharing, if you don’t mind installing a Firefox addon.

    Third, if you use Google Chrome, you can simply use an incognito window for your searches (or have a separate user profile for stuff that you don’t want to get mixed up with your regular information: Preferences => Personal Stuff => Add New User). If you do the latter, remember to regularly clean out your cookies.

    By the way, if you think that Google is your biggest problem, you may want to install Ghostery (Firefox or Chrome addon). For example, if I visit abcnews.go.com (just as an example), Ghostery will block AddThis, Chartbeat, Facebook Connect, Google Analytics, MSN Ads, Omniture, Quantcast, and Tremor Media.

    1. Katja, I think I’m in love. Will you come live with me?

      Or perhaps you’d just come for a visit, and teach me some of that neat stuff.

    2. Katja: you find my contribution–sniff–annoying? I thought it was fun.

      And yes, I was sure there were easier technical solutions. Thanks for telling me about some of them. (Ghostery sounds particularly neat). But to clarify: my idea was to *add* material to google’s knowledge of each user, to counterbalance the things it’s going to learn from gmail and other googly applications that can’t be used incognito. So cleaning cookies and going incognito (both of which I do) aren’t relevant to that purpose.

      To be honest, even if one likes my method, it would make more sense to impersonate somewhat else (by doing a series of searches that made one seem like a teenaged girl from Cleveland or whatever persona doesn’t resemble one’s own) than to go random. My suggestion was, I suppose, deliberately inefficient for the sake of esthetics. Babel Bombs are to fooling Google as performance art is to social change: useless but fun.

      1. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way. 🙁

        It’s just that it’s extra manual work, and as a computer scientist my natural inclination is to offload that kind of work to my computer. Or, as I remember a professor saying once, “You can spend five minutes doing a task manually or you can instead spend five years and a Ph.D. thesis on automating the same task.”

  2. In addition to Katja’s suggestion (and I already max out Ghostery), I also have ShareMeNot, Cookie Culler, Better Privacy and Ad Block Plus (and flashblock of course) arranging it so that my browsing is
    driven by myself.

    But in response to google’s continued “enhancements” I heard the suggestion to try DuckDuckGo for my default search engine. And so far, so good! I’m traveling and it has been getting me the restaurant results I want, and lately I’ve been not been happy with google’s results. But then, I have both google+ and facebook accounts, with every possible privacy option turned on (evolving over time as the companies evolve) and I have zero data uploaded to either site.

    Alas, with firefox maxed out the way I do, I have to keep a clean chromium around to interact with a few essential sites, such as usairways.com, and a couple of my money sites.

    And I have my own physically managed servers for my (multiple) email accounts.

    Most people think I’m crazy. 5 years from now, they won’t.

  3. This approach actually doesn’t work, using more straightforward data mining than google routinely uses you can separate out the real from fake queries. See :

    On the Privacy of Web Search Based On Query Obfuscation: A Case Study of TrackMeNot
    Sai Teja Peddinti and Nitesh Saxena , in Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium, Berlin, 2010.

    1. Darn! A beautiful art form slain by an inconvenient fact. But thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    2. Perhaps you could give us a summary, as the paper appears to have been removed from the authors’ web site.

      Cranky

      1. If one google’s the title, one receives a link that works for me: http://www.cis.uab.edu/saxena/docs/ps-pets10.pdf

        Unfortunately, that was through Google Scholar: duckduckgo didn’t yield anything useful. That’s one reason I was looking for a technical fix to the “google tracks everything” problem: Google’s products are god at what they do, the best that lots of corporate money can buy. I don’t mind them selling ads to pay for their software development; I’m just afraid of what they (or those they sell to) might do with the data they use to target the ads precisely.

  4. The “Spy List” wasn’t random. The names given all had a common factor that was not revealed explicitly. Sort of like the party game Tribond or the quiz show Only Connect but ruder and more free-ranging.

    The first “Spy List” included John Dillinger, Milton Berle, and Frank Sinatra, and was clearly meant to be “guys with great big ones!”, as a letter writer phrased it a couple of issues later. The link may not even have been true–the legend of Dillinger’s huge ackman was based on a misleading photo of his corpse on the autopsy table. (Berle and Sinatra, yes.) I could guess the theme about one time in three.

    Actually, that would be fun–feed the Spy lists into a Watson-like device to see if it can deduce the connections.

  5. Another internet irony here. Incognito searching, AFAIK, was devised for the delectation of porn connoisseurs. It’s nice to know that it is useful for the rest of us.

  6. Goddamn you, Andrew. Now I’m going to have “We Didn’t Start The Fire” stuck in my head the entire day.

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