America… OnlinePosted: August 9, 2006
AOL kept up their incompetency tour Monday by releasing the search records of over 650,000 members to the public (without permission, of course). The data is extremely raw – the only changes made were to replace the screen name with a unique number. This cursory step towards anonymization was barely enough, however: people routinely search for very local information, like zip codes and city names (something like “woodbridge ohio piano lessons”). The uproar was so immediate and intense that AOL pulled the data several hours later. This being the internet, however, the damage was done, and the data is readily available for download in several places.
I’m going to go contrarian for this post: as bad as this is, I’m somewhat relieved that they released it to the public, instead of stealthily handing it off to the highest bidder. It’s disturbing that they’re so blase about such sensitive information (I’ll get to that in a second), but honestly – these slimeballs are going to sell it anyway. If that’s the case, the general public should get to see what it is.
And it is riveting. I happened to get a copy pretty quickly (how could I not?) and sat for about two hours going through the first few thousand records (the amount of data is staggering). Since searches are grouped by account, an intense sort of “story” emerges from the chaos. It’s all pure speculation, of course, but occasionally you will see different perspectives from different people coming through. What AOL has released is the subconscious of America – real people off their guard, often sharing their innermost thoughts about their health, their finances, and their passions.
I know this sounds over the top. It really isn’t. I really felt like I was stepping in someone else’s shoes over and over again while reading through these records. The records cut across all parts of the country and all nationalities and religions.
I’m not sure if I should do this, but here are some of the searches that just jumped out at me as humorous, intense, or whatever. I am not putting any health related queries up, although there’s no shortage from what I saw – the internet is a huge resource for health related issues. Anyway, I’m putting them here to justify the rest of this post a bit. The ones on the same line are by the same person. And if you think this is wrong of me to post, let me know! I have mixed feelings myself…
And of course,