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Human Flesh Search Engine

March 3, 2009 - 13 Comments

Many years ago I saw, on a whiteboard, a sentence which never left me. The sentence, written by a programmer friend, said:”Never automate sharp objects”. Although, I do not totally agree with my friend, but there is a lot of wisdom buried in this phrase. The Internet is a sharp tool. The advent of the browser and worldwide web made vast amounts of information within the reach of any literate person who has access to a networked computer. Since then, listening and creating music and video, telephony and videoconferencing, search engines and social networking have made Internet easier and easier to use. We have continuously been sharpening our tool. Browsers and world wide web have become so automated that today’s children at a very young age become adept at handling it. In fact we speak of them as”Internet natives” as opposed to the”Internet migrants” of the previous generation. This automation of the Internet carries the dangers that my friend was referring to.Recently I have run in China into a phenomenon that I have never observed before. It is called the human flesh search engine. This horrible name is actually an artifact of a quick and literal translation from Chinese to English and should not be used to judge this activity. Human flesh search engine is a network based search facility which combines human and computer resources to accomplish a search task. When looking for something on the net we are very often stymied by the fact that there is too much information or that the thing that we are looking for simply does not exist on Internet. Both can often be addressed by augmenting search engines with humans. A friend can help formulate a query to reduce the plenitude of information, a friend of a friend might know where to find a 19th century flower pot that you saw once upon a time and have nothing to rely on but your own vague recollection. If you create this kind of a network of friends on the net then you can accomplish tasks that you would never imagine of trying.A very simple problem that a human flesh search engine can solve is finding a long lost friend. Traditional methods failing, you can engage a network of humans who will help you find the friend. Privacy laws in China are weak and so the result of such a search might be publication of private information such as: phone numbers, place of employment, home address, email address, etc. This fundamentally innocuous activity now turns into a dark and ominous social phenomenon. In February 2006, a video of a woman killing a kitten by stepping on it with her stiletto high-heel shoe was published. This video stirred an outrage and a web wide search to identify her. Someone analyzed the background of the video and identified the bridge as being located in Heilongjiang province. This very quickly led to the identification of Wang Jue, a 41-year-old nurse. Wang Jue and video’s producer, a cameraman at a provincial TV station, publicly apologized. Wang said she was divorced, depressed and having trouble figuring out what to do with her life.In April 2008 Grace Wang a freshmen at Duke University was caught in the middle of the Tibetan controversy. During a campus demonstration she tried to mediate between pro-Tibetan and the Chinese groups. She and her parents were quickly identified. Detailed directions to her parents’ home in China, accompanied by calls for people to go there and teach “this shameless dog” a lesson resulted in her parents having to go into hiding to avoid retaliation.December 29, 2007 a woman named Jiang Yan, depressed by the infidelity of her husband Wang Fei -an advertising executive at Saatchi-Saatchi, leaped to her death from her 24th floor apartment. Yan’s blog was soon published by her friend Zhang Lei and Wang photos, addresses and phone numbers were placed on major web portals.His parents were not spared either. The doors of his parents’ home were painted with accusations of blaming them for causing Yan’s death. Saatchi-Saatchi suspended Wang and his girlfriend and later they were reportedly forced to resign. Half a year later, Wang still could not find a job. In December 2008 Wang won a suit against the portals that posted his private information and also won a ruling against Zhang Lei. The awards were not big (about $1200 each), but they do represent an important event. Many examples of human flesh search or ‘netizens’ abound on Chinese Internet. Some identify corrupt officials, some castigate asocial behavior and some are just personal vendettas and petty affairs should not be of interest to anyone. They stir up emotions and lead to injustice same as those that led to lynching and vigilantism in America. We need strong laws protecting personal privacy on the Internet all over the world and we must let the law take its course. We must not tolerate mob justice for if we don’t then one day we will find ourselves victims of such attacks, just because of what we said, the way we behaved or the way we look.

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  1. There’s good and bad in all ‘prickly’ technologies, at their early period, like Wild West. New regulations would follow earlier or later, or, vacant ones might develop to cover. Anyway, it’s always good to divine and rapid it earlier…

  2. First i must say that title makes me read the whole story, there must be some rules or regulations not only follow by the moderator of the sites but also by Search Engines.

  3. All that personal information being made available just too easily is a frightening thaught, especially when you consider the outcomes. Although you can impliment legislation, how are you going to inforce it on something like the internet. It has no boundaries.

  4. I absolutely agree with you.A university freshmen girl was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend, who finally managed to track her down with the help of such search engine. Not until the death of the girl did the netizens who had helped felt regreted and realized what a bad thing they had helped.Human privacy should be protected, esp. in such a informational era.

  5. Don,I certainly agree that there it is often difficult to discern the difference between abuse and exercise of free speech, but physical abuse needs to be controlled by the law. Some of the cases that I have read about resulted in physical harassment of the victims. I also question what good does publication of other people’s addresses, phone numbers serve. Is it necessary to publish all of these to exercise free speech?– jan

  6. In reference to Jan’s response to Xiaodwan, I have attached a link to a podcast of a radio piece that discusses this point of internet and privacy from a different perspective. story discusses two college female students at a prestegious US law school who were selected to be harrassed online. This activity was joined in by many people mostly men directing various innapropriate comments at them. This hurt them emotionally and perhaps professionally.These women could not get the postings taken down since no laws cover this nor could they find the posters due to privacy.Finally, they sued the sites carrying these comments and any individuals they could identify who were involved. Some of those who were sued were mostly innocent.The story is interesting in that it discusses the situaion from both sides. Some of the questions it broaches include:What inappropriate or harmful to post online?When is free speach abused and what censorship should be allowed under the law?Can this problem be addressed by laws?

  7. Dear BrightStove,I am in complete agreement that laws and regulations are not enough. Your example of road safety is very apt. However, I do believe that strong laws are the basis that we need. Educational program needs to have a strong legal backbone.

  8. Dear Xiaodwan,The question really is what is ad””. Who determines what is “”bad”” and why. We really should not leave it in the hands of a mob. The danger lies in the fact that if I decide that someone is my enemy I can very quickly mobilize a crowd to go and harass my enemy. I am all for expressing your opinion, even anger about people behaving in an asocial way, but publishing private information on the net leads to physical harassment. This should not be allowed.Yes, leaving it to courts and police may cause delays in getting justice, but allowing the justice to be decided by a group of angry people will lead to injustice.”

  9. Strong and enforceable laws/regulations are certainly an important element against many of security and privacy issues we observe and experience on the Internet today. Cybersecurity however requires more to be done by the many stakeholders involved, including Internet users (which many feel that this is an impossible thing, but think about the possibility of road safety without an education/training/licensing scheme in any country, and the driver and road users both have to be involved besides others), ISP, ASP, applications/products developers, etc. I wrote two related blog entries on this sometime back:!9091E2A0F1B7D523!675.entry; and!9091E2A0F1B7D523!719.entry. I think the needs for establishing an acceptable
    orm”” (that perhaps should evolve/change over time) remain essential.”

  10. Found an interesting article from Google China website. They are recruiting volunteers for their Ren Rou (Human Fresh) searching engine…

  11. I absolutely agree with you.A university freshmen girl was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend, who finally managed to track her down with the help of such search engine. Not until the death of the girl did the netizens who had helped felt regreted and realized what a bad thing they had helped.Human privacy should be protected, esp. in such a informational era.

  12. Interesting article, good alert to abusing human network over privacy.There’s good and bad in all ‘sharp’ technologies, at their early stage, like wild west. New regulations would follow sooner or later, or, existing ones might enhance to cover. Anyway, it’s always good to foresee and prompt it beforehand…

  13. Search activity before finding the bad guy is GOOD!!After found, everything turns to BAD!!What you/I should do is to think and find out a *knife* to cut off the relation between Good and Evil.