Dystopian data: How my search history cost me my job

Digital freedom
4 mins
How my ISP cost me my job.

The following is part of a fictitious series that looks at the dangers of internet privacy abuse. ExpressVPN delves into a dark, but very realistic future where ISPs routinely sell your private data to the highest bidder.

January 14th, 2019: Interview day.

I was nervous; I hadn’t had a job interview in years. “Hope the format hasn’t changed too much,” I thought as I made my way down the hall.

“Where do you see yourself in five years.”
“Teaching AP Chemistry here, sir.”
“Welcome aboard, son!”

Yes, it would probably go something like that, I thought as I signed in at the principal’s office. Roanoke Collegiate Academy is your typical well-endowed, conservative prep school. They probably still call people “son.”

It’s not exactly my style, but I needed this paycheck. I’d been hunting for teaching jobs for almost 11 months now with no leads, and I was starting to get desperate.

As I sat in the waiting room, I mentally crossed off all the social media I’d scrubbed before this interview. Facebook? Squeaky clean. Instagram? Spotless. Twitter? So immaculate I could barely recognize myself.

“James! Come in. Great to meet you in person!” Professor Finch stood at the doorway, hand extended.

“Great to meet you as well,” I confidently said as I shook his hand slightly less confidently. Why did he put a funny stress on the words “in person,” as if he had already met me in some other fashion?

“Please have a seat.” I did.

“As you can imagine, we get a lot of applicants for the teaching staff here,” said Professor Finch as he sat down across from me. “Usually we don’t bother to meet with candidates flagged by our system, but your CV is impressive enough that we just wanted to clarify a few things in person.”

“Flagged?” I swallowed hard, hoping it still looked like I was smiling.

“Yes. Well, I’ll get right to it.” Professor Finch slid a paper on his desk towards himself. “On your online application form, you marked that you haven’t used recreational drugs in the last three years.”

Oh, Jesus.

“That’s correct.”

“Well we just want to make sure that is the case,” said Finch, eyes pinned on me as if searching for the truth. “There are plenty of impressionable young minds here.”

Christ, do they think I’m going to Walter White the chemistry lab?

“Is there reason to distrust my application, Sir?” I added a “Sir” to show deference. Or should I sound indignant? Would that make me more believable, or had I already lost this job?

Finch almost smiled. “Over the years we’ve found most candidates are just telling us what we want to hear. So to avoid unpleasantness down the road, we started buying data from internet service providers to give us a more… complete picture of each candidate.”

I froze. My web browsing history. Had I searched for anything drug-related recently? If I did, I’m sure I used incognito mode. I always do. They can’t see my history if I use incognito mode, right? RIGHT?

Finch seemed to sense my inner turmoil. “James, we have reason to believe you have an abnormal interest in cannabis.”

Medical marijuana. Dammit. Last weekend I did some pretty extensive research into weed treatments for cancer patients. I started reading about it on CNN and just went down the internet rabbit hole.

“Oh, that!” I struck my forehead for effect. “I have an uncle who’s going through chemo, and he thought it would be good for his appetite, but he’s not too good with computers, so I Googled it for him. I’m not interested in drugs myself.”

Finch was silent for what felt like ten whole seconds before turning over one of the papers on his desk.

“According to our data, on January 12th at 4:13 pm, you searched for marijuana chemicals.”

Shit. “Well, as I said, my uncle wanted to know, so”…

“You then searched, how to synthesize THC.”

“Sir, I did not intend to make any drugs, I was just curious…”

“As I’m sure you’re aware, medical marijuana is illegal in the Commonwealth of Virginia…”

I could no longer contain my outrage. “Professor Finch, wanting to learn about drugs does not make me a criminal!” I mean, for God’s sake, what kind of science teacher isn’t curious about chemicals, even illegal ones?

“No, James, it doesn’t make you a criminal,” Finch looked down, then back up at me with a grimace.

“But unfortunately, it doesn’t make you fit to be a teacher at this school, either. Neither does lying.”

Finch stood up to open the door. I sat for a moment, speechless, finally realizing it was over before I walked in the building. I stood and walked out, stunned.

“Best of luck in your job search,” said Finch as he closed the door behind me.

Incognito mode does NOT hide your web browsing history from your ISP. ExpressVPN does. Use it to protect yourself against not-so-distant dystopias like these.