AOL Searcher No. 4417749

Posted on August 8, 2006

AOL's accidental unleashing of hundreds of thousands of AOL customer's private searches has already resulted in the discovery of at least one specific person. The New York Times explains how 62-year-old Thelma Arnold's search keywords and phrases were revealed to all.

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.

AOL removed the search data from its site over the weekend and apologized for its release, saying it was an unauthorized move by a team that had hoped it would benefit academic researchers.

But the detailed records of searches conducted by Ms. Arnold and 657,000 other Americans, copies of which continue to circulate online, underscore how much people unintentionally reveal about themselves when they use search engines - and how risky it can be for companies like AOL, Google and Yahoo to compile such data.

Mrs. Arnold plans to dump her AOL subscription and told the New York Times, "We all have a right to privacy. Nobody should have found this all out."

Mrs. Arnold is right. The general public should never ever know what keywords she plugged into a search engine. Internet search providers have a responsibility to keep this information private. People that use search engines should be able to trust that a list of their search keywords and phrases are not going to be made public months or years later. Search engines that promise to not keep search data or vow to destroy search histories and records after a short period of time may find themselves with some new friends as a result of the AOL search data disaster.

Update 8-9-6: Ixquick Metasearch has already jumped on the opportunity to attract more searchers by promising to delete people's IP addresses and Unique User IDs.

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