Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Seek and Ye Shall Be Found

If you've got the mental horsepower required to fire up a computer and read this blog I probably don't need to tell you that electronic privacy is an issue of growing concern to users of "the internets" all over the world. But it's not just jihadists meeting up in chat rooms trying to decide which cow to blow up next in North Dakota who need to be worried. The folks who run the most popular search engines keep an alarming stack of records covering every web search that you do. Recently AOL royally screwed the pooch by releasing a batch of search information on the web. It turns out it wasn't hard at all to trace that information back and identify the people doing the searching.
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.

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.
I particularly enjoyed the caption to the picture of Thelma accompanying the linked article:
Thelma Arnold'’s identity was betrayed by AOL records of her Web searches, like ones for her dog, Dudley, who clearly has a problem.
We can all get a good chuckle out of poor Thelma's situation, and Dudley's propensity for peeing. However, stop for a moment and think about everything you may have searched for in the last three months. What if you recently found out that you have an embarassing medical condition and you were seeking information on it. Is that the sort of thing you'd want your friends or even your employer to know? Even worse, what if the information was for a friend but people saw it and just assumed it applied to you?

Maybe you were searching for information on known pedophiles and sex offenders in your area because you were concerned for your children's safety, but the search engine also returned some links to kiddy porn? Want that showing up on the six o'clock news on your local CBS affiliate?

We are living in an era where the current administration knows no shame or hesitation in collecting all manner of private information about us in the name of the "war on terror." I think we need to ask ourselves if we really want the search engine companies storing and compiling this information at all. What use does it serve the public? And by simply having irepresentists reprsent the fruit of temptation to a government with an appetite that is never sated.

Be careful what you search for. Whether you find it or not, somebody else may find it even more interesting than you.

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