If you're looking for a contract killer, use Google, not AOL…
…seems to be the lesson of the latest hiccup concerning data privacy on a big scale. What has happened?
As is widely reported (see the stories in the New York Times, on slashdot, or CNET), AOL released the search data of 658000 users on the internet — 20 mio searches done in the March to May 2006 period, or 0.3 per cent of all searches, overall 2 Gigabyte of data. While AOL user names have not been included, users have a unique identifier which makes it possible to identify the searches submitted by the same user. And since many people submit search terms that gives clues to their identity (so-called "vanity searches", e.g. for their own name, firm, or city), it may be possible to identify some of them.
This may be highly embarrassing, because many people are submitting searches for such unsavoury things as drugs, child porn, or a contract killer for their wife. Or they may reveal deep trouble — see some examples here.
Why has AOL published these data? For research purposes, and not for commercial use. Will spammers keep to these terms? You bet... Apparently the company now regards it as a mistake. The data were taken from the web and the spokesman has apologized.
Some interesting background: last August, the US administration subpoenaed AOL, Yahoo and Google for user data. But of the three companies, only Google chose to fight that order in the courts and won, earning lots of reputational brownie points on the way. So, are user's search data safer with Google than with AOL? Only time will tell.
The case, in my view, has the potential to be scandalized -- both by US lawmakers intent on regulating the internet more to fight evil use of it, and by civil rights campaigners who may call for European style data protection legislation regulating private sector use of data. But it could also spark new rows between the European Union and the US about data privacy.
Update: A website through which you can search and analyse the AOL user data has been set up for example here (there are also several others), and The New York Times has the story how they traced one of the users here. How did they find her? She had repeatedly looked for specific places in a small town in Georgia, searched for a name (which turned out to be also hers), and when asked by a reporter who had tracked her down admitted that the searches were hers. “My goodness, it’s my whole personal life,” she said. “I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder”, the NYT quotes her as saying.