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Saturday, February 05, 2005
The Google Query Bomb
I first learned about Google a few years back in a New Yorker article. The article immediately caught my attention because at the time I was trying to figure out what the best search engine was. I was under the impression for some reason that it was, but I could never make sense of their results page. The New Yorker article answered my question.

But what I found most intriguing was a statement in passing that Google saves all its queries. What value did a string of 3 or 4 words have? No one knew. So why did they do it? Probably because they could.

I don't think the significance of this immediately struck me. But I see it now as a marker of one of the major epochal faultlines in human history -- the technological problem of saving massive amounts of information has become almost trivial.

The value of those short query strings, I have come to realize, is not so trivial. For one thing, there is probably more information saved with each query than just the 3 or 4 words fed into the query field. There's also whatever information can be extracted from your browser (e.g. IP address.) There is all the other information people put out there on the web identifying themselves. And then there are the algorithms that can mine the vast oceans of data being gathered and divine all those interesting and incriminating patterns.

What I imagine will eventually happen is this: with the advancement of data-mining algorithms and other esoteric pattern-recognition techniques, Google (or some other service) eventually will be able to tie every query you ever made, however filthy or disgusting, back to you. They'll probably be able to identify every site you've ever visited. And thus it will be revealed, for instance, that on September 12, 2001, only one day after the most important tragedy in the history of the world, while a nation mourned, Tomohiro Idokoro searched for "hairy slut beaver shots" on his desktop computer.

But then we'll find out that a lot of other people did, too. So it won't turn out to be as big a deal as it seems to be right now.