Are You Likely to Commit a Crime? Here’s What Google Data Reveals

In an age of bountiful data, there's dark potential for how corporations and judicial systems could use private details to discriminate against innocent people.

Technology & Innovation

Are you a future criminal? You might not think so, says data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, but what do you look like on paper? Have you ever searched something suspicious online? Ever been curious about a dark topic? Just like the film Minority Report, where "future murderers" are arrested before they commit their crimes, we have a similar predictive tool ready-made: Google's search data. People really do search for things like 'how to kill your girlfriend' or 'how to dispose of a body', but as Stephens-Davidowitz points out, it’s not supposed to be illegal to have bad thoughts. Beyond privacy and ethics, data science also backs the idea that you can't predict with any accuracy who will commit a crime, as he says: "a lot of people have horrific thoughts or make horrific searches without ever going through with a horrific action." Data also provides intriguing correlations about who or won't will pay their loans based on a single word used in their loan application, and reveals the questions people in the Bible Belt are too afraid to ask aloud. This kind of data in the wrong hands can leave people vulnerable to discrimination or worse, if society lets its ethics slide. Stephens-Davidowitz is the author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Facebook vs. Google: The Battle of Self Projection versus Who We Really Are

Is your Facebook wall more of a façade? Data shows that people are brutally honest with Google, but that Facebook is a pack of shameless lies.

Surprising Science

To know who someone really is, don't look at their Facebook wall—look at their Google Search data. This is off-limits information to most people (definitely for the best), but data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has analyzed what's behind that curtain. His findings echo what you may intuitively feel: skepticism over how incredible everyone's life looks on Facebook, compared to your own. He cautions people not to compare yourself to that rosy standard for a pretty simple reason: it's a bundle of lies and exaggerations. Facebook presents who we want to be, but Google Search knows who we really are. Davidowitz calls it a "revolutionary truth serum", one that reveals that on Facebook husbands are described as "amazing" and "so cute", but in the confessional booth of Google Search, they are "gay" "jerks". Ouch. What it boils down to is that bragging is lying, but searching for knowledge is truthful. That, and that Facebook and Google might be the best social experiments ever designed. Stephens-Davidowitz is the author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Keep reading Show less

The truth about human sexuality? Google's search data is pretty revealing

What people self-report about their sex lives can bear little relation to the truth. So how can the social status clinging to our conversations about sex be stripped away? Anonymous Google searches!

popular

Sex is a touchy subject. What people say about their sex lives—what they "self-report"—can bear little relation to the truth of the matter. Men famously inflate their number of sexual encounters while women, in a telling double standard, reduce their number of partners. So how can we strip away the social status that clings to our conversations about sex? Anonymous Google searches! Here, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz reveals what people tell Google in the privacy and anonymity of their online searches. Many of the truisms we hold about sex are seemingly overturned in revealing and humorous style. Stephens-Davidowitz is the author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Keep reading Show less

Do Your Google Searches Reveal the Real You?

We tell Google things we wouldn't tell our loved ones, or even our own doctors.

Videos

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has a sneaking suspicion that everybody lies. Instead, we seem to be far more honest with a website than with each other. The things that people type into the Google search bar, Stephens-Davidowitz says, reveal far more about a person than any in-depth interviewer could ever dream of. Even how racist someone can be. What's alarming is that prior to the 2008 election, Stephens-Davidowitz saw a big uptick in racist searches coming from alarming places. He had expected the South to make perhaps a portion of these searches, but he was shocked to see the searches coming from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and more. And to cap that off, most of those searches were hardly fringe searches: they matched the amount of bigger-name searches like Lakers, migraines, and The Daily Show.

Keep reading Show less