Back in the late 90’s, there used to be a search engine called Metacrawler that let you view the last ten searches put through their system. It was called MetaSpy and I used to be fascinated at the people who would search for www.hotmail.com. Occasionally you would see names float by of famous or non-famous people, but because they were among millions of users there was no way to guess who was searching for what.
Last week AOL released 36 million search queries from 658,000 different users, but unlike MetaSpy they tagged each user with a random userID that linked the users searches together. So if user 1238192 searches for links about his town, street, the kind of car he drives, what high school he went to, etc., it’s isn’t difficult to guess who the person is. That’s just what a NY Times reporter did for 62 year old Lilburn, GA resident Thelma Arnold.
The search database was taken down almost immediately, but not before its contents were mirrored all over the web. There are many sites now where you can view the searches for yourself, like this one.
So what’s the harm in matching up someone’s search results with their identity? Blinq reports that in 1997 a Navy sailor’s AOL profile that mentioned he was gay was mistakenly matched up with his real name. The Navy discharged him and the man sued both AOL and the Navy and eventually had it settled in his favor.
That’s one example of how the leaked search data can affect someone’s livelihood, but one can easily see the same problem with family members, church goers, politicians (ok, no sympathy for the politicians).
The upside for all non-aolers is that this has provided some of the funniest reading material ever. Just page through a collection of “best of” users like this one and you’ll see what I mean. Note: They’re pretty raunchy.
My prediction? AOL is in deep shit. They’re already seeing FTC complaints about it.