Tech by VICE

How to Digitally Profile an Alleged Mass Murderer

Can search history be considered a significant tool in profiling Andreas Lubitz? Can search history be considered a significant tool in profiling anyone?

Apr 3 2015, 3:10pm

I am afraid to Google anything. By searching for something on the internet, I am submitting a query-fied version of my wants/needs/desires that will be stored on a system of servers. One day, some authoritative entity could use a string of search queries to construct a true/false story about my life.

Even though the information I am seeking is usually just to learn a trivial process [via 'How To' video/listicle] or recall a forgotten piece of pop culture, results are pretty trustworthy given the stakes. I can always land on Wikipedia, Yelp, Google-produced content, an AdWords sponsored result, or even a strategically engineered content farm post that meets my casual informational needs.

I trust the top Google results. It shapes how I view the world, no matter how important or insignificant my search is. How much of what I Google can actually be tied directly to my true self and my honest intentions? Just because I researched how to roast a pig over a fire, does it mean that I have the means, genuine desire, and physical/mental/technological capabilities to find a whole pig and spin it over a fire for hours? I really just wanted to know if having an apple in the pig's mouth made a difference in overall flavor.

This boring example of my Google search history was meant to show how random and meaningless internet search behavior can be.

Last week, a pilot named Andreas Lubitz crashed a Germanwings plane into a mountain in the Alps. The authorities found a tablet in his apartment and checked out his recent search history, where he looked for suicide methods and researched cockpit doors in the week leading up to the crash. Search terms included "medical treatment", "suicide methods" and "cockpit doors and their security," according to the Associated Press.

There is an obvious and widely-accepted disconnect between 'what humans project on social networks' and the 'true self.' However, after the release of Lubitz's search queries, I've been witnessing media outlets directly correlate search queries to the true intentions of the self. It is as if those words we type when we are looking for answers represent the most direct view into the soul, becoming a predictive mechanism for our real world actions.

Because there is no clear political or religious motive to sensationalize, the media discussion of Andreas Lubitz has focused on his mental health. "Talking heads" and online thinkpieces will speculate about the mental health of the accused pilot, then quickly distance themselves from 'the rest of the media that is performing unhealthy and unfounded speculation.' Stories from co-workers, doctor's visits, and other evidence is put together to try to construct a motive in the murkiness of mental health.

From a media consumption standpoint, it feels like the Germanwings tragedy has become a continuation of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The knowledge we accrued about black boxes, cockpit recorders, projected flight paths and plane automation systems can now be integrated with a much more 'interesting' human narrative--speculating about the intentions of an accused mass murderer. Every bit of information that trickles out allows us to salivate at the thought of understanding alleged deviant behavior, even if the latest tidbits are seemingly normal behavior like searching for information on the internet.

Can search history be considered a significant tool in profiling the intentions/motives of Andreas Lubitz?
Can search history be considered a significant tool in profiling anyone?
Based on headlines, can we perceive search history as the ultimate mental health screening?
Where do information age ethicists draw the line?
Should digital privacy exist for accused murderers and the deceased?

All we can do is search the internet to try to make sense of what we don't know. Stuck searching for 'unbiased' information [via media coverage]. Habitually donating the textual byproducts of our darkest/loneliest/realest/most trivial thoughts to search engines.

Submitting a query to a mainstream search engine means that you are willingly sharing your desire for information. Usually you submit other cookie-wave data that is tied to your account 'to personalize your user experience' and other free information that your unencrypted browser is willing to share. Edward Snowden's worst nightmare is allegedly already a reality--an authoritative state can use contextual clues from our search behavior to surveil us, creating narratives "about us" from the info_poetry of our search strings.

While we may never know the complete truth about the Germanwings tragedy, it does mark a high profile international event where the media has normalized a direct correlation between the internet search and the real world actions of the search engine user. We're already used to scanning the Instagram/Facebook profiles of school shooters and analyzing the tweets of terrorists. The analysis of selective posthumous search history logs represents another blurring of the lines between digital behavior and real world tragedy.

After a tragedy, we are desperate to understand 'why' someone acted against the flow human nature/behavior. Accepting that search queries are the a direct insight into human behavior is a dangerous way of approaching the internet. Perhaps I am wrong, though, and there is no longer a separation of the online self and the IRL self.

Is your search history the most directly revelatory online representation of your self?

I find myself wanting to Google for the "10 best Google alternatives that won't track my data," but I also crave a user experience that works seamlessly to create a better version of the web for me. Even if it means storing my searches for the rest of time.

Assuming that headlines are meant to reduce a meme to the most basic, the subtext of many Andreas Lubitz headlines are intended to project guilt based on his internet searches. The results he stumbled upon influenced his behavior. According to prosecutors, Lubitz has a history of mental health issues and forthcoming stories of depressive bouts. There are many flags that can't be downplayed. However, I feel uneasy accepting patterns of online behavior as something that can be interpreted as rational and literal in any state of mind.

This reinforces my fear that based on my search history, a 'narrative' can be constructed about my life at an inopportune time. Despite all this, my search behavior is unlikely to change. When the real world seems inexplicable, I'll keep searching for answers on the internet.