AOL User No. 4417749 Found Easily

Just finished reading this article from the New York Times about how one reporter easily found search user No. 4417749, a user found because AOL Released the Searches of 650,000 users.

Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently searches for her friends’ medical ailments, problems, or researches issues just to help, and she loves her three dogs. Over the three months of data that AOL released “by mistake” she conducted hundreds of searches on topics ranging from “numb fingers” to “60 single men” to “dog that urinates on everything”, or “termites,” then “tea for good health” then “mature living,” all of these searches and the others she conducted lead to a reporter finding her and asking if these were her searches.

“Those are my searches,” she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her. Ms. Arnold, who agreed to discuss her searches with a reporter, said she was shocked to hear that AOL had saved and published three months’ worth of them. “My goodness, it’s my whole personal life,” she said. “I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.”

That’s one of the troubles with the Internet, it is way to easy to figure out who someone is, where they live and lord knows what else. This is one example of what can go wrong online, and how one company can help ruin your life. Not saying that AOL did this intentionally, but when you keep data like this, you have to have strong policies on keeping this information safe from people who will use it for their own profit and or other motivations. Either someone bypassed the chain of command at AOL, they didn’t give ANY thought to releasing such data or someone seriously dropped the ball, none of which is good for surfers using the AOL site.

Asked about Ms. Arnold, an AOL spokesman, Andrew Weinstein, reiterated the company’s position that the data release was a mistake. “We apologize specifically to her,” he said. “There is not a whole lot we can do.”

Mr. Weinstein said he knew of no other cases thus far where users had been identified as a result of the search data, but he was not surprised. “We acknowledged that there was information that could potentially lead to people being identified, which is why we were so angry.”

We know, we already saw the lame apologies, and they aren’t going to be as angry as some of these searchers are going to be, I would imagine, this reporter tracking down Ms. Arnold is just one example, and certainly one of the most public, so far. And, as this story notes, it would be easy for these searches to look like one thing, but be something completely different. Ms. Arnold frequently searched for all kinds of ailments, like numb fingers, hand tremors, nicotine effects on the body, dry mouth and bipolar, leading one to think she might have some medical problems, which, in this case was completely wrong, as she frequently searched for friends ailments to assuage their anxieties. But, what about the more extreme examples, as noted on The Paradigm Shift and this blog entry AOL Search Data Shows Users Planning to commit Murder, where users were searching for “how to kill your wife”, “how to kill a wife”, “wife killers” and many more. What if that user was trying to help a friend, say a friend who is abused and in fear for his or her life? I know by looking at the searches it would seem like they were researching for themselves, but without context, what does it really show? BTW, that site has received 207 comments, definitely some interesting reading. As an example,

If you were an author of thriller/horror fiction, you might commonly enter “how to kill my wife” into Google…
Search is an extension of our inner thoughts. Doesn’t mean we’re going to do anything about it (recent case in Sweden aside).
Perhaps Google will be the real-world incarnation of the Minority Report law-enforcement model? I hope not.

Another interesting possibility, and another reason no one should have access to this data, user 17556639 could already be marked by police as a potential wrong doer, and it could be for the wrong reasons. My friend Wayne Porter is a security researcher for Facetime Communications, and in a recent post talked about how he had researched a case of UA pornography, if he was one AOL at the time, he could already be marked by someone as a pedophile.

It reminds me of my reaction to some of the chat transcripts from Perverted-Justice.com. After investigating a case of UA pornography during my job as a security researcher I realized how little I knew about the subject. I went to the site and began reading one of the transcripts and became physically ill. I simply stopped and cried and could not even finish the first transcript. Was it ugly? Yes. Was it terrible? Yes. Did I need to read it? Yes. I am a security researcher- it is my job to understand the criminal and how they operate and not assume I know what is really going on. I didn’t know as much as I thought- I was naive.

Wayne is most definitely not a pedophile, he is a scholar and a gentleman, even if he is hated by many people. ;)

Ms. Arnold says she loves online research, but the disclosure of her searches has left her disillusioned. In response, she plans to drop her AOL subscription. “We all have a right to privacy,” she said. “Nobody should have found this all out.”

Exactly right Ms. Arnold, but AOL has let the “cat” out of the bag, so to speak, so what do we do now? Should companies like AOL, Google, MSN, and other search engines keep this kind of data, or should they purge it frequently, or not even save it at all? Using it internally for improving search is one thing, but this kind of data should not be saved for very long, and it definitely should not be released in the “wild.”

As one commenter on Techcrunch noted, this is only the tip of the iceberg,

Anyways, search engines aren’t the only ones keeping logs, I find ISP logs thousands of times more scary…

And another,

I imagine anyone who isn’t a prude or bland tends to momentarily wonder about various topics with queries that, at face value, sound twisted or odd. Imagine being judged just for being curious about life (something as tame as medical conditions to the diverse range of literature and depths of dialogue). The ability to have curiosity and freely explore information is the greatest ability of a free culture. When people become afraid of seeking information — from fear of being viewed as a criminal — it will set society back into repression and darkness.

This entry was posted in AOL, Google, Research, Search Engines, Security. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to AOL User No. 4417749 Found Easily

  1. max says:

    There’s a website to analyze and duscuss particular AOL users: http://aol.zanoza.lv/

    “My neighbour is killing cats”: http://aol.zanoza.lv/user/723190
    “ways to kill yourself”: http://aol.zanoza.lv/user/9486162
    “wife killer”: http://aol.zanoza.lv/user/17556639

    A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749: http://aol.zanoza.lv/user/4417749

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