You have heard by now that the site AshleyMadison.com was hacked and that millions of users had their information made public. Ashley Madison is a company that exists to facilitate (and even guarantee) adulterous relationships, and now those people who wanted to be quietly unfaithful to their spouses have been suddenly outed. As I read the headlines and heard of some of those caught up in the scandal (including, sadly, Josh Duggar), I thought back to one of the first times in Internet history that we had to grapple with the power of the data we leave behind us every time we use the Web. For that we will need to go back to 2006.
In 2006, America Online made an epic misjudgment which taught us a valuable lesson: Who you are when you are alone and online, that is who you really are—no more, and no less. As part of a research project headed Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, AOL made available to the public a massive amount of data culled from their search engine — the search history of 650,000 users over a three-month period. This totaled some 21 million searches. Before releasing the data, they anonymized it, stripping away user names and replacing names with numbers, so that a user with a name like timc2000 simply became User #75636534. Yet because of the often-personal nature of the data, it did not take long before many of those abstract numbers were linked to real names, an obvious and serious violation of privacy and confidentiality. Within days, AOL realized its mistake and withdrew the data, but already it had been copied and uploaded elsewhere on the Internet, where today it lives on in infamy.
Some of the search histories were dark and disturbing, others unremarkable in every way. Still others were strangely amusing. It was often possible to 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
- continental.com 2006-03-01 21:34:53
- pet shipping 2006-03-01 21:35:11
- 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
- cat broken bones and diarreah 2006-03-04 03:58:24
- 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
It is not too difficult to understand what transpired through this three-day history of searches. The search engine data tells a sad story about a person and his or her cat.
This glut of user data raised a nearly endless number of questions and concerns. Primarily, it brought awareness to the fact that search engines know you better than you may like. Actually, they probably know you better than you know yourself in some ways. You tend to forget what you have searched for in the past; they don’t. We may like to think that our searches are just quick queries, harmless and pointless inquiries known only to us.
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
- you’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 rings 2006-04-20 16:58:37
- 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.
And now millions of Ashley Madison users have been outed in much the same way, except this time their actual names and personal information are sitting right there alongside their data. They have been exposed as people who went looking for adultery. And the whole world is sitting by, looking on with an amused eye. Spouses are searching through the data wondering if even their husband, their wife, may have been involved. Gossip blogs are combing the data looking for headlines.
One of the great deceptions of the Internet is that it allows us to think there are two parts to us, the part who exists in real time and space, and the part who exists in cyberspace. But events like this ought to make us realize that when you go online you display and expose who and what you really are. And who you really are will eventually find you out. God will not be mocked.