10 August 2006
This website is all about keeping your privacy. But I should make a qualification: it’s about keeping your information as private as possible. The miserable reality remains that you will not always have control over your data and your privacy.
That’s not to say that you should give up on keeping your information secure – you shouldn’t. But try to be prepared when the worst happens, as it did on August 4, 2006.
Last Friday, AOL posted on one of its websites a compressed text file holding 20 million search terms and phrases for about 650,000 users. The data was collected between March and May of 2006.
AOL has since removed the text file and issued an apology, but the damage is done (especially since the file is still available through other sources – once something is on the internet, it doesn’t disappear easily). This was taken from TechCrunch, which has been following the story closely:
AOL has released very private data about its users without their permission. While the AOL username has been changed to a random ID number, the abilitiy [sic] to analyze all searches by a single user will often lead people to easily determine who the user is, and what they are up to. The data includes personal names, addresses, social security numbers and everything else someone might type into a search box.
The most serious problem is the fact that many people often search on their own name, or those of their friends and family, to see what information is available about them on the net. Combine these ego searches with porn queries and you have a serious embarrassment. Combine them with “buy ecstasy” and you have evidence of a crime. Combine it with an address, social security number, etc., and you have an identity theft waiting to happen. The possibilities are endless.
This New York Times article demonstrates how easy it is to analyze search results in combination with the associated ID number to uncover an individual’s identity:
No. 4417749 conducted hundreds of searches over a three-month period on topics ranging from “numb fingers” to “60 single men” to “dog that urinates on everything.”
And search by search, click by click, the identity of AOL user No. 4417749 became easier to discern. There are queries for “landscapers in Lilburn, Ga,” several people with the last name Arnold and “homes sold in shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia.”
It did not take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her friends’ medical ailments and loves her three dogs. “Those are my searches,” she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her.