Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The NY Times puts a face on one of AOL's victims

A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749 - New York Times:
Buried in a list of 20 million Web search queries collected by AOL and recently released on the Internet is user No. 4417749. The number was assigned by the company to protect the searcher’s anonymity, but it was not much of a shield.

Thelma Arnold’s identity was betrayed by AOL records of her Web searches, like ones for her dog, Dudley, who clearly has a problem.

No. 4417749 conducted hundreds of searches over a three-month period on topics ranging from “numb fingers” to “60 single men” to “dog that urinates on everything.”

And search by search, click by click, the identity of AOL user No. 4417749 became easier to discern. There are queries for “landscapers in Lilburn, Ga,” several people with the last name Arnold and “homes sold in shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia.”

It did not take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her friends’ medical ailments and loves her three dogs. “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.”

In the privacy of her four-bedroom home, Ms. Arnold searched for the answers to scores of life’s questions, big and small. How could she buy “school supplies for Iraq children”? What is the “safest place to live”? What is “the best season to visit Italy”?

Her searches are a catalog of intentions, curiosity, anxieties and quotidian questions. There was the day in May, for example, when she typed in “termites,” then “tea for good health” then “mature living,” all within a few hours.

Her queries mirror millions of those captured in AOL’s database, which reveal the concerns of expectant mothers, cancer patients, college students and music lovers. User No. 2178 searches for “foods to avoid when breast feeding.” No. 3482401 seeks guidance on “calorie counting.” No. 3483689 searches for the songs “Time After Time” and “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

At times, the searches appear to betray intimate emotions and personal dilemmas. No. 3505202 asks about “depression and medical leave.” No. 7268042 types “fear that spouse contemplating cheating.”
If this story disturbs you, you might want to visit Digital Rights Ireland and support our campaign against data retention.

No comments:

Post a comment