16 August 2006
Wired News has an excellent article called FAQ: AOL’s Search Gaffe and You.
In it, questions such as “Why did AOL release the records?” and “AOL says it anonymized the data by replacing the AOL user ID with a randomized number. Is it possible for someone to figure out who I am just from my searches?” are posed and answered in a straightforward way.
The following question is probably the most pertinent for those who would like to avoid search engine privacy infringements:
Has the government ever requested such records before?
Yes. One attempt was made public last fall when Google fought a subpoena from the Justice Department which asked for similar records from AOL, MSN, Yahoo and Google. The feds wanted the records to help defend an ongoing court challenge to the Child Online Protection Act. Google largely won that battle, but Yahoo, MSN and AOL all turned over records to the government. The government may have also asked for large quantities of search records as part of antiterrorism efforts, but those subpoenas and warrants typically come with gag orders that would prevent the search engines from publicly discussing them.
As far as I know, MSN, Yahoo, and AOL didn’t put up the slightest resistance. Google is not beyond reproach on all things privacy related, but the company is certainly a big step ahead of its competition in this instance.