For victims of sexual violence, many of whom are legally granted anonymity in the United Kingdom, all it might take is some simple Google sleuthing to dig up their protected personal information.
According to a report from the Times of London, the legally protected names of people involved in sex and violent crime cases were searchable through Google’s autocomplete and related-search features.
Google’s autocomplete function predicts what you might be looking for based on the terms you’ve typed into the search bar. These predictions are based on multiple factors, including what you’ve typed, terms you’ve searched in the past, what other people have searched for, and trending stories. “Related searches” show up at the bottom of the page when you look up a term in Trends. The Times reports that it was able to pull up the names of people who had been granted anonymity because they had either been involved in a well-known case or had been deliberately identified on social media.
In the U.K., victims of certain acts of sexual violence can be legally granted lifetime anonymity under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003, meaning their identity must remain unknown to the general public. Breaking the anonymity of someone legally protected by this amendment is illegal and punishable by a fine. There have been cases in which people have intentionally identified rape victims online, but in the case of Google’s reported search failure, it’s not an issue of malicious intent so much as a potentially dangerous oversight.
The Times reports that it was able to bring up on Google the names of several people granted anonymity and reportedly used “several unlinked computers” so that the searches weren’t impacted by previous activity on the search engine. Times reporters were able to find the name of one person granted anonymity through autocomplete by typing in the name of the defendant in the case and a “common search term.” They were able to find the name and hometown of another anonymized person through related searches by typing in the defendant’s name “and a simple term.” They were also able to find the name and hometown of a person accused of an attack who was granted anonymity by typing in a “simple search relating to a violent crime case.”
A Google spokeswoman said in a statement to Gizmodo that they “don’t allow these kinds of autocomplete predictions or related searches that violate laws or our own policies and we have removed the examples we’ve been made aware of in this case.” Google has an automated system to flag inappropriate predictions and remove them, but the company sometimes fails to catch all offending instances.
“We want to help ensure victims’ anonymity is protected online,” the spokeswoman continued. “We will seek the help of the relevant authorities to protect the names of victims who are guaranteed anonymity, and we will work closely to find the right solutions.”
Still, it’s disconcerting that looming bad press and the investigation of a media company is what prompted Google to take down these search results. Naming rape and sexual abuse victims granted anonymity is not only illegal, it’s a major invasion of privacy. It would be nice to see massive tech companies better proactively treat it as such.