Hard News by Russell Brown

Contender: Worst mistake ever

Earlier this week, some people at America Online did something blindingly stupid. We're only just beginning to so see the consequences of their actions, which will have a long-term impact on the Internet and may take a very serious toll on the lives of some individuals.

In a misguided attempt to reach out to the research community, AOL placed a big chunk of its customers' data online:

AOL just released the logs of all searches done by 500,000 of their users over the course of three months earlier this year. That means that if you happened to be randomly chosen as one of these users, everything you searched for from March to May (2006) is now public information on the internet.

AOL replaced the account IDs of the half million users with random number strings, but it's possible to track each user's search activity over the entire period. People type all kinds of things into Internet search windows, including details that would allow them to be identified, either directly or by deduction. And remember, these are AOL users: their whole brand is stupidity.

A Slashdot poster sums it up:

This is a fucking diaster for AOL. There will be lawsuits, and I'll bet you someone will die because of this (due to stalking, spouse finding out secrets, etc.). Use your imagination. This data is chock full of so much personal information, it's scary. I'm terrified that everything I've ever searched for in google is similarly logged in a data center somewhere and could be just as easily revealed but for whatever security they have in place, along with a dubious "don't be evil" guarantee.

But wait, there's more. AOL search is just Google search re-skinned. This marketing blogger explains what that means:

The big affiliate marketers will make millions off this, i’m already busy processing the data, and after taking a quick peak at the data its an absolute gold mine for PPC and SEO.

Google/ AOL have just given some of the worlds biggest spammers a breakdown of high traffic terms - its just a matter of weeks now until google gets mega spammed with made for adsense sites and other kind of spam sites targetting keywords contained in this list.

Another analysis:

Many commenters on Digg don’t seem to see it as a problem, but then maybe their search history does not make it look like they are searching for information on their family tree, information for English teachers in a conservative US state, the website of a local church, chamber of commerce, and rotary chapter in the same state in between searching for MySpace, cheerleaders, preteen sex and strap on sex toys. AOL has kindly replaced these people’s screenname with a sequential integer but I am guessing if you went to that church, Chamber of Commerce, or Rotary chapter you would be able to pick an English teacher with that surname

This being the Internet, none of this can ever be unpublished; it's out there. The original 400MB file isn't necessarily easy for ordinary folks to handle, but there is already a string of web-based search interfaces for the data. AOL Stalker offers keyword search and examination of individual search histories (it's appealing to users to report " data that actually makes it possible to identify a user" so it can be removed) and Don't Delete permits search of the database by keyword, web address and anonymous user ID - as well as an endlessly entertaining "random user ID" button.

Entertaining? Well, yes. It would be dishonest to deny the voyeuristic appeal of this thing. As they unfold over time, these search histories read like soap operas, comedies and tragedies. And frankly, given who's crunching this information already, you and I browsing the data is the least of the AOL customers' worries. Don't like it? Don't look.

User 6760296, a 14 year-old, tells quite a sweet story: from "what a girlfriend should do" and "rulebook for dating" to "how to change my password on myspace" then "ways a 14 year old can earn money" and "can 14 year olds mystery shop" and, optimistically, "get paid to look at peoples myspace". We eventually find out what the job hunting is in aid of: "cheap ipods".

A long string of searches for Biblical topics from account 1347872 is twice interrupted by a little spate of searching for "breasts" and "small breasts". (The collision of God and - sometimes quite deviant - sexual themes actually seems to be a common characteristic of the search histories. Go figure.)

A woman searches for James Blunt lyrics one night, mental health interventions for addiction the next

User 7005 has debt problems.

Perhaps account 3183956 is a family home. The terms are all over the pace: repeated searches by someone wanting to join the "dark side", shopping for kids' clothes, a series of searches for anti-immigrant sites. User 255112 is also concerned about immigration and foreign workers. That and extreme anal …

At first, user 763570's biggest problem seems to be owning a stinky dog. But things go pear-shaped: a string of searches on jails, bail, and "Texas drunk driving laws".

The record for user 3214991 is just disturbing. The same computer has been used to enter really, really nasty porn search terms and, apparently to research and book a wedding venue.

You get the picture. Other people have reported finding credit card numbers, social security numbers and many other identifying details in the data. It's quite some calamity.

Some responses to Tuesday's venturing-of-opinion on Rockstar: Supernova. Jo from hubris.co.nz said: "Rockstar, unimportant? How can you say that? It's the best show on TV! There was a moment in the INXS version that was the single greatest moment of TV last year which you really must relive on Youtube."


Jo is also ("not that I'm obsessed or anything") covering each week's show.

Over at Blogging It Real, DC-Red had words too: "Speaking for myself and the rest of 1970s-bred lower-middle class west auckland, I think it's fantastic to see rock on TV. For so long there has been nothing to appeal to our musical tastes ... the endless, tuneless/overwrought covers of Whitney Houston on the various Idle franchises just don't cut it for us, y'know, dawg? We likes what we likes, and it ain't that."

I agree. It is quite pleasing to hear rock rather than yet more R&B warbling, and me and my ol' lady (I'm experimenting with faux-Westie vernacular in search of urban credibility) sat down and watched thr whole damn thing last night. I had Dilana, Lukas and Storm in that order. But not Ryan. Ever. I hate Ryan. Like, personally.

Anyway, I'm sure you all have some random user IDs to inspect, so I won't keep you. Toodle-pip.