Occasionally, something odd shows up   Leave a comment

Surfing through my blog log this morning, I noticed this odd entry in my “incoming links”:

This post is apparently the second-from the top in the unsponsored link list when you search www.crawler.com for the term “swingers club in polson montana”.

This is both very funny (someone in Polson is looking for a swinger’s club? POLSON?) and slightly disturbing. Modern search engines do not do a good job of exception handling, unless the user knows how to use the advanced search features (Google is no exception, the post is #5 on the list if you run the same search there).

Computer algorithms do what they’re told, nothing more and nothing less. Oftentimes, the values they return don’t match what the user is actually expecting them to match (contextually, I would expect someone searching for “swingers clubs in polson montana” to be happier with a list of “swingers clubs in Montana” or possibly even “swingers clubs in the pacific northwest” than just any old web site with the word “Polson” in it)… but this is because the user doesn’t give the full context of the search request to the engine. Really, they can’t unless they choose their input very carefully, crafting their search appropriately. Most people don’t do that.

As a result, what Google “knows” about you isn’t exactly what you think Google knows about you. One can imagine easily the converse of this occurring; running five or six seemingly innocent looking searches that have weird results in the list. For example, you could search for “climbers of Everest” and get a bunch of blog posts about the recent Tibetan unrest.

And this is one reason why I’m so adamantly opposed to the widespread monitoring of the US telecommunications network by the NSA… because “climbers of Everest” with “homemade rockets” with “amateur radio enthusiast” might overlap in “Possible remote missile launcher terrorist attack on the upcoming Olympics”.

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Posted July 22, 2008 by padraic2112 in politics, security, tech

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