His name was Gareth Williams. He is dead.
His body was found decomposing inside a padlocked duffel bag in his own bathtub. As Williams worked for British Intelligence (MI6 and Government Communications Headquarters), the lurid possibilities are only too easily imagined. Was Williams tortured by foreign agents? Was he assassinated? Was his bizarre death some kind of political message?
Incredibly, British authorities announced this week that Williams “probably” died by accident and alone in his home. Williams’ family doesn’t believe it; they think he must have been murdered. Even the authorities describing Williams’ death as some kind of accidental suicide seem to be having a hard time saying it with a straight face. This brings us to their evidence for this theory.
They looked at Williams’ computer.
“Some have raised the possibility that Williams locked himself in the bag as part of a sex game gone wrong,” reports Fox News. “Investigators found that he had visited bondage and sadomasochism websites, including some related to claustrophilia – a desire for confinement in enclosed spaces.”
And that is the sum total of the information police have to tell them how Gareth Williams died. It doesn’t sit well with other facts of the case. For example, while the police do believe it was physically possible for Williams to get inside the bag and even lock it, none of his DNA was found on the lock, nor were his palm prints found on the edge of the bathtub. But these facts seem to pale, at least in the jaundiced eye of the news media, when compared to the deviant sex websites Williams is supposed to have looked at on his computer.
What will your browser history tell us about you when you’re dead?
It’s one of those jokes that floats around the Internet: Everyone needs a friend who, upon hearing of your death, will immediately clear the cache on your computer to prevent any embarrassing revelations. Very few of us would be comfortable making the full history of our browsing publicly available. The majority of us visit at least some sites we wouldn’t want the world to know about. This is one of the reasons Americans become so upset at the notion of their Internet activity being tracked and traced. We like our privacy on principle, yes. We like our privacy even more when it comes to concealing some of our more personal or prurient online interests.
Last week, a site called “Victoria Milan” (which is little more than an adultery network, intended as a dating service for married users) published a survey claiming that roughly half of all cheaters do so because their spouses spend too much time engrossed in technology. Whether smartphone or tablet, PC or laptop, the implication is that if you spend less time browsing and more time, er, spousing, your marriage would be better served. Two-thirds of the users surveyed said they wouldn’t have cheated at all if not for the help of the Internet to arrange their liaisons.
“Like anything else that enhances our lives, technology is a double-edged sword,” the Huffington Post quotes Victoria Milan’s CEO, Sigurd Veda, in her press release. “It’s a predictable, albeit unfortunate, commentary that modern use of technology has led to a kind of social isolation – being alone in a room of many others – that leads to seeking out connections with others when we are left feeling unfulfilled in our day to day relationships. One way or the other we need to find that connection.”
HuffPo goes on to say that this “isn’t the first time research has shown the detrimental effect cell phones and texting can have on a relationship. In October, researchers at Brigham Young University found heavy texting to be associated with relationship dissatisfaction among both women and men.”
That, of course, brings us to smartphones directly. Your kids are smarter than ever before about concealing their browsing histories and hiding their Internet activity, despite the fact that parents are monitoring their kids’ online accounts more closely than before.
“A recent survey,” reports 10TV.com, “shows that more than 70 percent of kids have tricks to hide their online habits. The most popular way is simply by clearing their browser history. …” Teens can take this a step further, however, by installing applications like “Vaulty,” which safeguards data deemed sensitive and hides photos and videos behind password protection. Another available application, “Applock,” makes Facebook and email “vanish from your phone,” while “Hide It Pro” looks like an audio manager but can be launched in secret when its icon is held down.
There is only so much any of us can do to hide our online activities. Sooner or later, your Internet secrets will out. This may occur after your death. What is, after all, the first stop so many police investigations make in cases of (initially) unexplained death? They check the deceased social media and look through his or her electronic devices, hoping to find clues to that person’s mental state and the events surrounding his demise.
What have you been looking at recently? Do you even know? What would it tell us about you if that was all we had to go on? Would you be comfortable if the last 10 websites you visited were to stand as the only silent testimony to the events surrounding your last days?
We take the Internet for granted. We take for granted also the social media and communication infrastructure it affords. Nearly every one of us has had occasion to use the Internet at work, both for legitimate business activity and for personal use. We use it on our smartphones. We use it on our home tablets and laptops and desktop PCs. We are every day creating, therefore, a dossier on ourselves. We are establishing a footprint that tells those we leave behind who we happened to be. That picture is not complete; that picture may not even be accurate. But the picture is nonetheless real – and one to whose composition we ought all pay a bit more attention.