Should Google Have Kept Internet Searches Private?

Google’s new “Searchtracker” app that allows anyone to see the full record of any other person’s history of Google searches raises some significant ethical issues.

Google never promised privacy to individuals which used its website to search the Internet. But it seems to me there was an implied contract which the app violates. There also seems to be significant potential of harm to reputation, for example if people use the app to identify who has searched on line for pornography or spent hours “googling themselves” in a narcissistic fashion.

At the same time, I could not resist using the new app, including checking on some people I know well. Or at least, I thought I knew them until I saw their search histories. As I myself yielded to temptation, I don’t have the right to judge all the other people who will use the app to find out what their friends, co-workers, spouse and children have been searching for on line.

If you want to draw your own conclusions, the app is available for free download here.


Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

24 thoughts on “Should Google Have Kept Internet Searches Private?”

  1. In related news, Google has changed their motto to “Aww fuck it, just be evil”.

    1. I’m so pissed I just deleted by real professional google account.
      And have decided to start using aliases atop my aliases….

  2. I assumed reading your post that it was this year’s Google April Fools Day announcement – one much closer to the bone than their usual lighthearted Google Moon Base type malarkey. After all, Google’s biggest rival Facebook actually implemented something much like this scheme at one time, a system that would automatically tell your Facebook friends what you’d been looking at and buying online in case they might want to do the same, and on an opt-out rather than an opt-in basis.

    Turns out this year’s prank announcement is something else entirely.

  3. This did a good job of exposing my own bounded rationality. I immediately thought that it would cost Google a huge amount of reputation and a large number of users, but that didn’t immediately tell me that they hadn’t done it. I guess I am too accustomed to people shooting themselves in the feet.

    1. I didn’t buy it, but not because I’m any less likely to be fooled than the average person.

      What I do know is that the fines (and possibly criminal charges) that Google were to face in Europe if they did this would make it a complete non-starter, regardless of even the public backlash.

      So, well, no I didn’t buy it (after an initial “what?” reaction [1]).

      On the other hand, this appears to be real, sadly enough.

      [1] That reaction being premised on the assumption that our dear Prof. Humphreys is above such things and that it would therefore be highly improbable for him to pull such a stunt.

      1. Katja:the difference between the US and the UK appears to be that in the UK, the authorities take the trouble to change the law and announce what they are doing, while those in the US just say “F*** it” and go ahead and do it.

      2. Good one, Keith, nicely done. But it is things like the following, both from the last 24 hours (in addition to Katja’s reference and others) that both make it plausible, and cause it to result in a wry smile rather than guffaws.
        (And by the by, you had me congratulating myself for never using any kind of Google account and thinking twice about what I search for there.)

  4. “Keith Humphreys” image_searches&&March 2012: “Angelina Jolie” -philanthropy 134 instances
    “Keith Humphreys” image_searches&&March 2012: “Halle Barry” 94 instances
    “Jonathan Zasloff” image_searches&&March 2012: “Nancy Pelosi” 67 instances
    “Mark Kleiman” image_searches&&March 2012: “Reece Witherspoon” 741 instances

  5. As many of us have known since college, the most interesting and important Playboy articles are always in the issues with the prettiest playmates It’s an efficient search tactic for very highbrow and intellectually demanding content, so there, phhhhbbbtttt. Also, the best defense against moral degeneracy is for concerned citizens to stay fully informed about all its manifestations. So we can oppose it most effectively. Double ppphhhhbbbttt, with loogie.

    1. Some years ago I was in a car pool – I and another guy and a young woman. And the other guy incautiously mentioned Playboy. She bristled, and he quickly responded ‘only for the articles’… My glory moment then was that I said, well, everybody likes the articles but me, I like the pictures, and wasn’t it kind of them to do all that work for only me?

      She didn’t forgive me for days…

    2. In the late 70’s, out of curiosity, I went to an anti pornography meeting. A vice cop from Dallas was the presenter. He brought along a large briefcase packed with porno magazines. Saying we all needed to know what we were fighting against, he spread the magazines out on a table and invited everyone to come by and take a look. I was amused and bemused when I was the only one in the audience to not take the opportunity to paw through the porn.

  6. Great April Fools item. It also reminded me I needed to review my privacy settings, since I had put off doing so since the “great unification.”

  7. • MPAA Announces Kickstarter Campaign for Film Decrying Internet’s Impact on Creative Works.

    • Google’s New “Nude View” Program Raises Privacy Concerns.

    • RIAA, ISPs Introducing New “Hunger Games” Penalties for Infringers.

    • Patent Office Sued Over Patent on Issuing Patents.

    • Reddit Rolling Out “Real Names of Chuck Norris Only” Policy.

    • New Zealand Leaks New IP Chapter of TPP, Includes Mandate to Give All Alleged Copyright Infringers Free Puppies.

    • EFF Issues New Guidelines for Mobile Privacy.

    • Job Seekers Getting Asked for Farmville Passwords.

    • Karaoke Machine Vendors Must Adhere to “Know Your Customer” Policies.

    • Researchers discover critical flaw in snowflake generation algorithm.

    • Bruce Schneier develops security system so clever he can’t imagine a way of breaking it.

    • Drones: Drones, drones drones, drones?


  8. This skeptic was well and properly schnookered, Keith–well done. It was your deadpan, analytic tone as much as the idea that made it a great joke: more Economist than Onion. (Of course, you had an unfair advantage; I was away from email for a couple of days and didn’t read this on April Fool’s Day.)

    I will say that I thought this idea was so obviously dangerous to Google’s business model that a public outcry would force them to pull the app very quickly. But that’s very different from not believing the story in the first place.

Comments are closed.