Tuesday, August 08, 2006

AOL Privacy: chai tea calories/aftermath of incest

AOL earlier this week released search logs of its users. The data replaced the searchers' names with numbers, but sometimes just the content of the searches is enough to put a name to the number. While AOL quickly took the data offline, copies are still available online and continue to be scrutinized.

The early reaction this week was to focus on user 17556639, who repeatedly searched using such bleak phrases as "how to kill your wife," "decapatated photos," "killed people," as well the less morbid "steak and cheese" and "poop." This was spun on Digg as "AOL Search Data Shows Users Planning to commit Murder", which isn't true. I mean, there are plenty of reasons why a person would search using this fellow's phrases. Chief among the reasons: *fantasizing* about murdering a wife, while not actually constructing an elaborate and queerly cheesesteak-oriented plan to do her in.

More users are being profiled, though, through their search terms. news dot com dot com has a few of these, including the searches of the calorie counting and sometime suicidal incest survivor seeking a teaching gig in Denver. Part of the fun is the juxtaposition - the user who searches for both "university of kentucky 2007 football recruits" and "how to kill oneself by natural gas." There's also the guy who looks for pictures of skinned cats and "sexy bathing suits." Mostly there's a lot of pathos: "hes just not that into u," "i dont have a career," "should i get back with my divorced husband," "when you have less property than you u bought."

A person could be identified by the stuff they've put in their searches, and it's not right for AOL to've let this information out to the public. But it's so much fun to read.


Fishfrog said...

Are there searches for proper names? You know how everyone does a search for themselves every once-in-a-while. That seems like stuff that could pretty easily identify a user.

Now, I agree that it's a little weird for AOL to publish this stuff, but there really isn't an expectation of privacy on the internet. And AOL probably explicitly reserved the right to do something like this in one of those long contracts that you have to scroll all the way down to the bottom to click through. So while I agree that it doesn't necessarily sit right to me, it doesn't really seem all that out of line. And if you're a fecalphiliac who wants to kill your wife with some sort of a cheese covered steak, and you put this plan together using AOL searches, maybe I don't want to expend my energy protecting your right to privacy...

Matt said...

There were searches for proper names. There were also searches which included social security numbers, credit card numbers, zip codes and other local regional identifiers (see the NYT link in the post), and package tracking numbers.

There was no click through contract, because this was just a webpage with a search box on it, there was no requirement that you agree to legal disclaimers before proceeding. It was like a google search.

I think the fact that the people gave AOL such private information indicates that they certainly expected privacy for their information, even if they were misguided to think so. For AOL to publish to the world this information seems very torty to me.

But then I know squat about privacy law.

Fishfrog said...

I guess you're right that the fact that people entered such personal info in the search engine suggests they expected some privacy. But I just don't think you can say that expectation was reasonable (which I believe to be an element of the tort claim). I mean, typing in text on a widely used internet site, expecting it to bring you back results for the search, in this age of hackers, identity theives, and prying government. Come on! Privacy in your home, sure. Even in your work locker maybe. But on the internet? That just doesn't seem reasonable to me.

Matt said...

Well, these people searched before the NSA revelations, but I see your point - one ought not rely on the discretion of the search provider, because in real terms it isn't at all private.

But people are phenomenally ignorant about - many of the searches take the form of "www.thing searched for" like "www.how to hang shelves". Here, I think the amazing stupidity on the part of AOL somewhat makes up for the lack of reasonableness of the searchers.

Matt said...

...phenomenally ignorant about technology

Fishfrog said...

I noticed that in the NYT article. They were interviewing a lady they identified from her searches. They provided the text of her searches and they clearly indicate that she is not overly familiar with linguisitcs or online searches. Lots of "the" "it" "how" "of" and other irrelevant terms.

I guess this just leads to the question of who exactly is the reasonable person. I think it's me.