The danger of auto-complete

We have all experienced the convenience of the auto-complete feature of many software items that save you some typing. But the prompts can often be the wrong ones. For me, the most common error due to autocorrect is to send emails to the wrong people who happen to share the first names or first letters of their names with others, because I hit send before double-checking. So far, that has not caused any problems, except delays.

Via Neetzan Zimmerman I learned about one person Jeffrey Kantor whose life was ruined by the auto-complete feature on the Google search engine. Intending to search for “How do I build a radio-controlled airplane” for his son, he ended up inadvertently searching for “How do I build a radio controlled bomb?”

He says that he ended up being targeted for investigation by the authorities, constantly monitored, and eventually losing his job.

What bothers me is that there could well be legitimate reasons even for the unintended query. For example, you may just be curious about easy it is make such a thing and want to find out. Surely that should be something that can be cleared up quite easily? The trouble is that the government is so secretive about how it acquires information and the bases for its actions that it is hard to gauge whether they had reasonable grounds for suspicion. Since Kantor is suing the government, we may get to learn more.

It looks like curiosity can be quite dangerous these days, and not just for cats.


  1. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Five years back or so, the big deal in tech circles on the net were folks that were building their own jet engines and their own drones with lots of discussion of how easy it was and how scary that thought was.

    So yes, googling this stuff should not be cause for ruination of their life.

    I can sort of understand the beginnings of an investigation into this, but to turn a 10 minute investigation into anything more than a 10 minute chat is absurd and abusive.

    Where is the oversight?

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    If Google (or Bing, or …) gets so many searches for “radio-controlled bomb” that it has come to expect that query, whichever agency gets to do the follow-up ought to prioritize their probing a little more intelligently.

    Of course, suggesting greater intelligence to an intelligence agency hardly ever produces a useful response, however apropos-to-desperately-needed such a recommendation may seem to all outside said agency.

  3. doublereed says

    Feds similarly targeted people who can teach you how to beat a lie detector. Which is actually quite ridiculous. There have been books and training for years about how to beat lie detectors and how they work. Trying to pretend that lie detectors are serious business something is really nothing more than a joke. And trying to pretend that teaching countermeasures is a crime is pretty laughable.

  4. bcmystery says

    I write mysteries novels. Based on my internet searches, I’m a serial killer terrorist rogue cop sex slave ring drug pusher using quantum mechanics to treat my dog’s clogged anal glands. Oh, in addition to writing mysteries novels I also have a dog.

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