Monday, August 07, 2006

AOL Releases Search Logs of 658,000 Users

Do you use AOL? I don't know why you would, but if you do, I hope you haven't done any crazy searches lately. AOL "anonymized" the search queries of 658,000 of its users and published the results on

In the past, publicizing search queries was a hot-topic among internet geeks like myself. The Department of Justice and google got into a tangle of sorts when:

The government's original request demanded billions of URLs and two month's worth of users' search queries. Google resisted the subpoena, prompting the judge's order today.

Google was considered to have won when the judge ruled against forcing google to hand over search queries and cut down the number of URL's to 50,000.

Google's Associate General Counsel, Nicole Wong, had this to say of the ruling:

We will always be subject to government subpoenas, but the fact that the judge sent a clear message about privacy is reassuring. What his ruling means is that neither the government nor anyone else has carte blanche when demanding data from Internet companies. When a party resists an overbroad subpoena, our legal process can be an effective check on such demands and be a protector of our users.

I guess that's why it comes as such a surprise that AOL would willingly publicize the search results of its users. And, they did one better by offering three months worth of searches as opposed to the two that the government had requested from google.

Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that while in the first case it was only the government who would have access to the information, AOL published their findings to the web in the hopes that researchers would use the data set, making the information available to anyone who felt like downloading the file (Read: your HR department, any government, the police, your mom, etc.).

AOL is trying to get a handle on this PR nightmare by claiming that it was not intentional. An apology was issued today:

"This was a screw-up, and we're angry and upset about it. It was an innocent enough attempt to reach out to the academic community with new research tools, but it was obviously not appropriately vetted, and if it had been, it would have been stopped in an instant," AOL, a unit of Time Warner, said in a statement. "Although there was no personally identifiable data linked to these accounts, we're absolutely not defending this. It was a mistake, and we apologize. We've launched an internal investigation into what happened, and we are taking steps to ensure that this type of thing never happens again."

Regardless, the entire situation brings to light an entire, interesting whole new set of questions. Taking a look at some of the anonymous user's queries, you can find segments such as those belonging to 17556639:

17556639 how to kill your wife
17556639 how to kill your wife
17556639 wife killer
17556639 how to kill a wife
17556639 poop
17556639 dead people
17556639 pictures of dead people
17556639 killed people
17556639 dead pictures
17556639 dead pictures
17556639 dead pictures
17556639 murder photo
17556639 steak and cheese
17556639 photo of death
17556639 photo of death
17556639 death
17556639 dead people photos
17556639 photo of dead people
17556639 decapatated photos
17556639 decapatated photos
17556639 car crashes3
17556639 car crashes3
17556639 car crash photo

Wow. I don't know what's more disturbing there. The "steak and cheese" search placed between "murder photo" and "photo of death" or the fact that someone at AOL thought I had the right to look a that search in the first place.

I'm going to put a little spin on this, thanks to 17556639's search and throw a question to our readers: As users of the internet, do you feel that the queries you make on a public site should be considered private? Or, do you think that a company like AOL, who is in the position to spot behavior that seems indicative of criminal behavior, has an obligation to report the individuals making those searches?

Through publicizing these results, AOL has really opened a pandora's box. The bigger problem they are facing is that they did not do an excellent job of anonymizing the users.

So, if you have used AOL in the past 6 months and did searches for high school classmates, or anything that may have prompted you to put in your home address, or, heck, even if you looked up your own name, and you were one of the 658,000 users they randomly selected, odds are even with that number they gave you to make you anonymous, someone could figure out who you are and what you were doing on the internet.

Big brother, anyone?


At 10:19 PM, August 07, 2006, Blogger Aaron said...

I really wanted a steak and cheese.

At 10:54 PM, August 07, 2006, Blogger Cantankerous said...


But what about the poop?

At 11:21 PM, August 07, 2006, Blogger Aaron said...

Should've come after the sandwich, I think.

At 11:25 PM, August 07, 2006, Blogger Cantankerous said...

While this isn't quite the discussion I had anticipated, I have to say, you're cracking me up, Aaron. Thanks for the chuckles!

At 12:50 PM, August 08, 2006, Blogger TheSarc said...

Check this out: AOL user says "just kidding" about searching "How to kill wife" 30+ times

At 3:41 PM, August 08, 2006, Blogger elliot said...

The problem with drawling conclusions from raw searches like these is we don't have any idea of the circumstances or intent.

For example: some of my searches when I'm working on a book might look very much like those.

At 3:59 PM, August 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most telling thing for me was that AOL still had 650k+ subscribers. I didn't realize that there were that many people that enjoyed crappy service

Oh and Aaron - the reason that poop came before the sandwich was so that you could make room for the sandwich

At 10:24 PM, August 08, 2006, Blogger Cantankerous said...


I completely agree with you. I was wondering if someone would bring that up.


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