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Selling Out the AOL User

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The New York Times was the first to capitalize on AOL’s colossal blunder, publishing an account of a woman in Georgia who acknowledged she was User 4417749. You should be prepared for more of the same in the coming weeks as media outlets everywhere exploit what should never have become public.

If you haven’t heard yet, AOL admitted to the “screw up” after AOL Research released the search logs of over 650,000 AOL users, discovered over the weekend, replacing user names with unique ID numbers.

AOL pulled the downloadable file much too late to prevent its spread all over the Internet, as websites pop up allowing the voyeuristic peek into the minds of those users. Detractors immediately decried the release as a blatant privacy violation, noting the ease with which a person could connect the information in the data to specific users.

The New York Times begins the media avalanche by detailing Thelma Arnold’s search for love after 60 and a way to keep her dog from peeing on the couch. Thelma’s permission to publish aside, journalists should consider whether getting the story is more important than upholding ethical principles.

This is wrong. Yet I find myself wrestling with it too.

The NYT article was a benign proof of concept, and (if Thelma doesn’t mind), not a violation of privacy. But the game begins to find the most shocking and defaming AOL user logs, and one might bet that others won’t be so courteous.

Yesterday, to investigate how easy it would be to not only draw conclusions about a particular searcher’s life, but also to identify a searcher, I visited one of the many searchable websites out there. In a very few minutes, I found information that could possibly ruin a public official, disgrace a religious figure, and out a pot-smoking teenager. All I need is the Internet, a telephone, and a travel budget to prove it.

But this is the very thing we railed against when the Justice Department subpoenaed the search engines – the very thing we cheered Google about when they refused to release the information. Privacy is important, and shouldn’t be exploited for government or gain. There are any number of reasons a person searches for a particular thing and, especially if there are multiple users of an account, queries are only evidence of interest, not of intent or action.

I’m going to give examples of what I found, leaving out the unique ID numbers, to show how damaging this can be.

Examples:

    User A is possibly a high-ranking state government official (state withheld), potentially linked with the state-level Secretary of State’s office. He or she (but probably he) does a lot of policy and tax research, as well as name-specific election results research. He is or was in the Navy, graduated from the Naval Academy and is still on Navy medical insurance. He recently took or is taking a trip to St. Louis on business and while researching travel information, checked out a site on St. Louis escort services.

    Other searches (lots of them) include instructions on sexual techniques, body parts, and bestiality. Did he conduct all these searches? Maybe. But he could also have a teenage son very interested in how, exactly, the opposite sex works and if there really are photos of animal relations on the Internet like his friends say.

    Half of User B’s search logs focus on Christian theology, imagery, events, stories, and ways to debunk the Emergent Church. The other half (well, maybe more than half) focus on Playboy models, celebrity sex videos, and 13 year-old school girl porn. Oh, and what the Bible says about asteroids and world destruction. Can we conclude that the person focusing on his faith is the same as the person searching for adult material? Could it be one of those famously rebellious preacher’s kids?

    We might conclude that User C is a teenager heavily into the urban scene, as many of his searches focus on financing gold and diamond teeth, information on how to become a rapper, female buttocks, gang pop culture, car hydraulics, and how to roll a “blunt.” We also know that he’s done a lot of research on a particular model of Honda and its parts, most likely because it has broken down.

    A few months later, research centers on “pimping” out a Cadillac. But we also know that User C lives in a specific small town in Kentucky, with a population of just over 7,000 people, one of whom he has searched for by name.

But really, none of this is our business. It’s not the government’s business. It’s not the journalism industry’s business, either. It’s the business of the searcher alone, whatever his or her motivation, and AOL will be feeling the heat of this “screw up” for some time to come.

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