Fooled By Search Randomness

  • by , Featured Contributor, September 14, 2010

It's official, or rather, officially leaked by Israeli publication Google has agreed to purchase Quiksee for $10 million. (Neither Google nor Quiksee has commented on the story.)  

The assumption is that the new addition, which "allows users to create location-based interactive media content," will enhance the Street View experience. Given Street View's privacy woes, however, I'm not sure it's a wise move. The service remains under fire in multiple countries for capturing unsecure WiFi data with its roaming Street View cars.

I have often thought that I have nothing to worry about when it comes to online identity theft. Who, after all, is interested in my identity? Who would bother to intercept the various packets of data that comprise my online footprint and go through the (I imagine) laborious process of reconstructing them into something, well, stealable?



My inability to fathom anyone's desire to commandeer my digital person, however, was based on an utterly false premise: namely, that in order for me to be so unlucky, I would have to be targeted. Someone would have had to select me specifically, and to come to the attention of such nefarious identity thieves I would have to be very unlucky indeed.

But there is a fundamental flaw in this simplistic logic, a flaw of which I was reminded tonight -- not, thank heavens, because my identity was stolen (it wasn't), nor because Street View plugged into my bandwidth (they didn't). No, it was because I caught up for dinner with my MediaPost colleague David Berkowitz. The conversation, as it often does with us, rolled around to our favorite books, and I was reminded of a passage from Nassim Taleb's "Fooled by Randomness":


A similar misconception of probabilities arises from the random encounters one may have with relatives or friends in highly unexpected places. "It's a small world!" is often uttered with surprise. But these are not improbable occurrences -- the world is much larger than we think. It is just that we are not truly testing for the odds of having an encounter with one specific person, in a specific location at a specific time. Rather, we are simply testing for any encounter, with any person we have ever met in the past, and in any place we will visit during the period concerned. The probability of the latter is considerably higher, perhaps several thousand times the magnitude of the former.

Is someone likely to steal your identity in particular? No. Nor your wallet or your passport. But is somebody's identity going to get stolen? Sure -- as will somebody's wallet and somebody's passport.

These are probabilities we'd prefer to avoid, of course. Fortunately, the likelihood of serendipity is equally high, and equally misleading. Whether it's bumping into your friend or relative in a highly unexpected place or finding out that the guy you're trying to broker a deal with went to kindergarten with you, the world is full of happy circumstances of chance.

Search is an equally happenstance environment. The chance of coming across a particular given site (outside of the biggies) is pretty slim, but you'd have to be a lousy Websurfer to walk away from the computer without having found any sites at all.

We approach search as if it were purely causative, and our success at it were purely a result of our individual skill. What we forget, however, is the hidden role of chance -- and how easily we are fooled by randomness.

Are you on Twitter too? What a small world! Feel free to have a random encounter with me via @kcolbin.

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