As many Internet nerds have discovered already, AOL foolishly released the search data of more than 650,000 users, replacing names with randomized numbers for the sake of "anonymity." Sadly, by scrutinizing the search queries of some users it becomes quite clear that people's identities can be readily recognized by themselves and potentially others; many people will conduct regular web searches on themselves, family members and other personal information, including social security numbers (why anyone would type that into a search engine is beyond any realm of common sense). The Seattle P-I's website yesterday featured a New York Times story about one such woman. According to AOL spokesperson Andy Weinstein, user data is stored for up to one month to allow users to access previous searches and to improve AOL's search engine performance overall. The data that was actually released was accrued over a three month period and was intended for use in a recently launched research Web site for academics.
There's absolutely no question here that AOL screwed up royally. Ironically, Google was involved in a legal tussle with the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this year about seizing the same type of information to monitor the effectiveness of the Child Online Protection Act; Google succesfully barred the move. The question on everyone's mind right now is probably, "What kind of messed up shit are people searching for on the internet?" I'm glad you asked, because there are some really strange people out there looking for strange things. The search history of one such user, #711391 (who I personally concluded to be a woman), has already been proclaimed an "unbelieveable epic" by tech-savvy site Waxy.org. She professes a diverse set of interests ranging from nude photos of Hilary Swank to facial growths to Christian salvation.
Hilarity aside, AOL's gaffe has already sent bloggers into a tizzy of speculation over privacy issues and legal ramifications. Can someone be arrested for intent to commit murder because their search history includes several entries of "how to kill my wife?" Can a curious search for "child porno" get you locked up for being a pedophile? Will searches for "bomb how-to" qualify as terrorism? Alas, the Web is not such an anonymous place after all.