How Writers End Up On NSA Watchlists

Writers tend to research some strange things. Nuclear physics, brain tumor symptoms, the history of ancient Mesopotamia, how long bodies take to rot in the tropics . . . these topics are either the product of a deranged mind or the research material for a pretty interesting novel. Probably a little of both.

A lot of writers I know on Twitter tend to joke around about how we’re all going to end up on NSA watch lists because of our search histories. Well, I decided to delve into my own Google search history and use it as an example of the kinds of strange things we writers get up to, and how it might look to some government agent perusing my history while searching for terrorists.

I'm going to do us both a favor and not show you any of the search results from my more intimate personal activities (i.e. the porn I watch).
I’m going to do us both a favor and not show you any of the search results from my more intimate personal activities (i.e. the porn I watch).

You can access your personal Google search history if you have a Google account (I have one through my Gmail, and if you have a YouTube account that is also linked to Google). Just visit https://history.google.com/history/ and after entering your account ID and password, you’ll see a listing of all the search terms you’ve googled, going back who knows how far.

As you can see on the screenshot above, the history shows not only what search terms you used (“rowan health and wellness”), but also what site you ended up visiting (Student Health Services @ Rowan University). That means the NSA can tell not just what you’re looking for, but which sites you picked out from the list.

So let’s see what kind of trouble I’ve been getting into:

This already looks pretty bad, and I skipped over the more illicit stuff.
This already looks pretty bad, and I skipped over the more illicit stuff.

Irony, ponies, and stalkers. One might almost think that I’ve been stalking a girl who likes to ride horses and I’m planning a clandestine encounter out on the ranch. Either that or I was getting into etymological debates on Twitter.

I may be the only person in the world who will search for Schlock Mercenary, Galaxy Quest, and Mesopotamian and Sumerian language in the same day.
I may be the only person in the world who will search for Schlock Mercenary, Galaxy Quest, and Mesopotamian and Sumerian language in the same day.

Someone might wonder what I’m doing searching for the “Mesopotamian word for slave.” I can assure you, this isn’t some kinky fetish thing (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Actually, “Enkidu” ended up becoming the name of a new character in my current novel. The name basically means “Creation of the Deity of Crafts.” I found it fitting, considering my character Tock Zipporah is a golem-crafter.

Now things are getting a bit disturbing.
Now things are getting a bit disturbing.

And of course, in addition to researching ponies and Mesopotamian slave names, I did extensive research into decay rates of human bodies. As you can see, I spent quite a bit of time visiting multiple websites on this topic. It’s almost as if I’m planning to enslave someone and I want to know how long it’ll take the body to decay when I finish killing her. But that seems unlikely . . . maybe if we go a bit further back, there’ll be something in my search history that will shed some light on this and explain what I’ve really been up to.

I offer no explanation or apology for my search for a Russ troll with red hair wearing a Cubs jersey.
I offer no explanation or apology for my search for a Russ troll with red hair wearing a Cubs jersey.

Well, this certainly looks a bit more incriminating. Nuclear weapon yield, fallout radius, types of nuclear weapons. Either I’m part of a terrorist cell or I’m writing a novel where someone set off a nuke and I needed to research the death count of both the initial blast and the later radiation poisoning. Which might explain the research into human decomposition if I’m trying to find out how long the bodies of people that died of radiation poisoning would last out in the tropical heat before being reduced to bone and ash.

My Geek is showing.
My Geek is showing.

I have no explanation or excuse for this part. I’m just a Star Trek Geek.

Ignore the way the searches for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" are in juxtaposition to searches about book sex if you want to keep your sanity.
Ignore the way the searches for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” are in juxtaposition to searches about book sex if you want to keep your sanity.

Okay, this one looks like it would raise some eyebrows. “Books Having Sex”? “Slut shaming”? “Sex is evil”? Wow, either I’m a conservative Christian fundamentalist writing a sermon about the evils of sex in literature, or I was doing research for a recent blog post about sex and infidelity among the characters in romance novels. Either way, this could be seen as a bit disturbing.

I wonder what my mom would think if she saw this search history...
I wonder what my mom would think if she saw this search history…

And lastly, we have research into Mumbai, India, malnourishment, the Indian military, and ethnic cleansing and religious violence in India’s history. When you add this together with the research into nuclear weapons and body decomposition, I must seem like a deranged individual. But I can assure you, there’s a rational explanation for all of this.

All of these searches (well, most of them) make a lot of sense if you know anything about my current WIP. Most of it takes place in a fictional foreign land on a made-up planet. I’m modeling certain details of the culture after India because it matches the ethnic backgrounds of two of my characters, Vijay and Indra Pavari. Due to the onset of global disaster, the people in this country are suffering malnourishment and living in a state of anarchy. Because the disaster shut down the government and most law enforcement and other services, there’s no one to enforce order and people are getting desperate. This has led to ancient feuds between different religious groups being sparked again, leading to violence throughout the country. There was even a nuclear attack in a neighboring country because the violence and chaos has spread worldwide. People in some regions are dying and there’s not even anyone to clear the bodies out of the streets, leaving them to bake in the tropical sun.

During all of this, Indra is developing romantic feelings for a certain someone, but the attraction bears the burden of certain religious taboos about sexuality. Which has a lot to do with all my recent research into romance novels and topics related to love and sex. I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about developing a romance in a novel, expressing emotions in a realistic fashion, and dealing with negativity from people who don’t approve of your relationship.

See? I told you there was a rational explanation for all of this. Now, here’s hoping the NSA cancels the warrant.

Do you have any unusual things in your Google search history? Or should I be afraid to ask?

Advertisements

24 thoughts on “How Writers End Up On NSA Watchlists”

  1. The most unusual thing on my recent search history is extensive research on the effects of hallucinogens, long-term side effects, life and half-life of these drugs and the symptoms of withdrawal. Oh, and then there was my apparent fixation on frostbite and hypothermia, about two weeks ago. And the Jedi Code… Yeah. Weird and random stuff. I think yours definitely takes the cake, though!

    1. So you’re writing a book about a rogue Jedi knight who goes on a mission to the Ice Planet Hoth, gets addicted to hallucinogenic drugs, and succumbs to the dark side?

  2. The other day I needed to look up some websites for swingers, for my new novella. I need say no more.

    ps, I don’t write erotica, it’s about a relationship breakdown, by the way!!!

    1. I don’t write erotica either, but I know there’s a lot of room for sexuality, infidelity, and taboo things in a romance novel. How the characters react to such things can say a lot about them and their relationship.

      1. Yep, sure can! I don’t write romance novels either, but never mind!!! Thanks for replying x

  3. I have often thought that if the NSA were to go through my history I might be put on a No-fly list or possibly “disappear” without a trace…courtesy of the FBI. Most of it is for my own curiosity, which is worse. Curiosity killed the cat.

  4. That was very cool of you to use yourself as an example. I don’t know, the more I hear about the NSA’s lists, the more I think they just flash anyone with a sense of curiosity. If that curiosity is a by-product of your fiction writing, at least you’ll have something to tell the men in black when they take you away at 3am.

    Me, I run Linux on my laptop, which means according to the latest reports I was on the list before I searched for a single thing. Apparently being not thrilled with both Microsoft and Apple is subversive.

  5. Last year I wrote a series of blog posts about the obliteration of all lifeforms…

    I had to lookup some really weird stuff too, because I compared asteroids to space hemorrhoids because both need a very complicated setup of mirrors to get a good look at them. But now I really regret looking at all those pictures of hemorrhoids.

  6. Well I think that you may be right about being on a government’s watch list.
    Back in May of 2013, I requested information under the Freedom of Information Act I recently received a second reply, saying my request fell under the category “Complex Track”. Which means they are sorting out information that is not currently top secret or classified? They have taken so long I have found pretty much all I need.
    What I personally think is they are researching this alleged fiction writer, and what he knows and should not know.
    I will wrap up my first draft soon, and perhaps by my second, I will have some information from the DIA, that I already know.
    Ahh, our tax dollars at work.

    1. That sounds like the layout for a pretty interesting story in itself. A writer requests information from the government, then, when frustrated with delays, starts researching on their own. When they finally get the information back from the government, it turns out to be different from what the writer found on their own.

      They begin investigating more, to find out why there is a discrepancy. They find out they’ve exposed some kind of coverup, and the government didn’t want that information to be found. The next thing they know, they’re being hunted down for knowing too much about something that the government wanted to keep hidden…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s