AOL’s search data snafu

Journalists around the globe are pouring over the search data exposed by AOL and painting some not very pretty pictures of many netizens.

John Battelle thinks the snafu is a good thing from one perspective: It puts the online privacy debate in a whole new light.

The New York Times used the data to find one specific person.

USAToday summarizes the scope of what we’ve learned about how people assume they have greater privacy than they do:

User 1515830 is apparently an overweight woman with little willpower. She searches for the number of calories in certain foods but later searches for “baked macaroni and cheese with sour cream.” Tragically troubled, she searches terms having to do with incest, depression, psychotic drugs and “I hate men.” She also seems to be a teacher (“teaching positions in Denver Colorado”), probably lives in Ohio (“divorce laws in Ohio”) and is shopping for curtains.

This is what’s so fascinating about AOL’s gaffe. AOL has made one of the secrets of search very real: It is the closest thing to the content of people’s minds.

We’re candid when we search because it seems anonymous and private. “Most people assume the Internet is a more private medium than it is,” says Greg Lastowka, a Rutgers law professor specializing in the Internet.

As AOL has shown, search records are, in fact, like a diary. The intention is that they remain private, but they can wind up in someone else’s hands.

The bit in the piece above about the guy searching for ways to kill his wife recalls the issue of “pre-crime” makes me think once again that Minority Report was more prescient than maybe we first realized. I haven’t seen that movie since it was in theaters … I think I’ll try to rent it today.

John Battelle, in his book The Search, talks about the “database of intentions.” That database isn’t always a pretty picture, as this CNet story shows.

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