Of all the issues I’ve tried to explain to non-ACLUers, often the hardest is the right to privacy. It often seems to be just something you feel at a gut level–either the idea that the government has a list of phone calls you’ve made either creeps you out or it doesn’t.
Since the revelation about NSA warrantless wiretaps, I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard “I haven’t done anything wrong so why should I care?”. People are similarly unconcerned with the vast array of data private companies are gathering on individuals. This data collection has become all the more ominous lately, given that many companies seem to have no compunction about turning data over to the government, and laws like the PATRIOT Act make it easier for the government to compel those who may be reluctant to do so.
Well, today’s article in the NY Times about AOL’s posting of web search records for over 650,000 individuals on its website certainly helps make it easier to talk about privacy issues.(Incidentally the records were taken down, but not before the information was copied). Individuals were identified only by a unique identifier number, rather than names, and their entire search history for the past three months was listed. Despite the lack of names, the searches alone were enough for two NY Times reporters to track down the identity of one woman.
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 friendsÂ medical ailments and loves her three dogs. “Those are my searches,” she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her.
For some really interesting commentary on the AOL release of data and the ease of identifying individual identities through data-mining searches, check out these entries from Bruce Schneier and David Berlind at Between the Lines. (You should also check out Berlind’s original posting on the release of the data. It provides some disturbing (and sometimes amusing) portraits of some of these search patterns revealed in the data.