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Screen capture from AOL's website before it was taken down -- Image courtesy Texturabtion
AOL does the unthinkable

AOL grabbed headlines last week when it announced that it was making its online services freely available to anyone with Internet access. Today, the company is making news for what is an inexplicable turn of events. The company freely made available the private search history of over 650,000 users without permission. The 439MB compressed download features over 20 million search queries over a three month period and was made available on AOL's research website along with a readme file detailing the results. In an effort to ease damage control, AOL has removed both links, but mirrors for both search data and the AOL readme (for better or worse) are mirrored at multiple sites.

The vast amount of data included in these search queries is staggering and the possibilities for abuse are endless. TechCrunch reports:

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 ability 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.

It’s one thing to make private search data available to the federal government upon request (and even that has been widely debated over the past eight months), but to make it freely available from a public website is downright malicious. It’d be interesting to see what AOL’s response to this whole fiasco will be.

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RE: A little over board
By RamarC on 8/7/2006 3:38:07 PM , Rating: 1
People often search their name and addresses near them.

I often search for restaurants. Does that mean I'm

Each AOL ID is randomized, but it stays the same for every search query the user made. In otherwords, it's pretty easy to figure out some people's names.

23,456 out of 12,234,123 is easy to figure out?

I'm pretty sure this violates a couple of laws, and is the primary reason why people don't agree that anyone should be keeping tabs like this, even the government to an extent.

I'm often pretty sure the guy I'm playing poker with isn't holding a queen. I'll tell you from experience, pretty sure don't mean diddly.

If ANY company you deal with has data that involves your habits, it is perfectly LEGAL for them to use and sell that data so long as you cannot be identified from the data and the company has issued and properly maintained legalese informing you of that fact.

Credit card issuer(s) make(s) a boatload of money from selling purchase histories (and have done so for decades ). Retailers analyze their sales register receipts (which includes the CC transaction number) scrupulously to detect patterns and profiles. I'll bet some local retailer knows what type of movies/dvds/games you like. I'll definitely bet a certain cashier knows what type of beer or soda you prefer.

My point is this: you are not now, nor have you ever been completely anonymous. The thing you're reading this on and typing a reply on is what has caused your level of anonymity to decline but it is not the cause of it.

Most folks names, addresses, and phone numbers and in a book that gets sent to most other folks in their vicinity. Should the phone company be sued for the utter invasion of privacy that is the 'white pages'?

RE: A little over board
By mindless1 on 8/8/2006 3:41:59 PM , Rating: 2
You miss the entire point, that information does't NECESSARILY have to be correctly interpreted, let alone true, to be used against you. A very very large part of mitigating the effect is not prevention but LIMITATION in access to the information.

So what if some somebody can find some tidbit? That's a lot different than a goldmine large enough to make a systematic harvesting worthwhile for someone with ill intentions.

"This week I got an iPhone. This weekend I got four chargers so I can keep it charged everywhere I go and a land line so I can actually make phone calls." -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
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