Be Careful What You Search For

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Thelma Arnold, 62, of Lilburn, Ga., is curious about single men in their 60s, termites and what to do about a dog that “urinates on everything.”

Ms. Arnold did not intend to make these musings public when she originally typed them into her Internet search engine. “Most people assume the Internet is a more private medium than it is,” says Greg Lastowka, a Rutgers law professor specializing in the Internet. Nevertheless, thanks to a recent blunder by AOL, Ms. Arnold’s life (not to mention the lives of some 600,000 other AOL members) has been laid bare.

In a bungled attempt to aid software developers, an AOL staffer in late July released details of 20 million web searches typed in by 658,000 users over a three month period. Until AOL took it down, anyone could download the data. Entire portions of it remain in circulation.

Granted, the data was supposed to be anonymous — each user’s name was replaced by a number. Ms. Arnold, for example, was identified only as AOL user no. 4417749. Even so, given her searches for “landscapers in Lilburn, Ga”, several people with the last name Arnold and “homes sold in the shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia,” it did not take long for the New York Times to discern that user no. 4417749 was Thelma Arnold. “With enough puzzle pieces, in this case search, it’s very possible to figure out who someone is,” confirmed Jim Harper, of the Cato Institute.

User 1515830, a presumably troubled woman struggling with her weight (among other things), was also probably unaware that her Internet queries were being tracked. She initially searched for the number of calories in various foods, but later sought out a recipe for “baked macaroni and cheese with sour cream.” She also entered “I hate men,” terms related to incest, depression and psychotic drugs, “divorce laws in Ohio,” and an inquiry about “teaching positions in Denver Colorado.”

• Click here to read Lis' Column, "Lis and the Single Girl"

Unfortunately, the potential for data breaches does not reside exclusively with AOL. Spokesmen for Yahoo and Google say search records are kept for “as long as it’s useful.” And to be fair, that information can be useful to Internet search engines in helping Web surfers find what they are looking for. But the potential consequences of all that data being compiled are what Marc Rottenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Information Privacy Center, has called a “a ticking privacy time bomb.”

Meanwhile, curious folks have been sifting through the AOL data just for kicks. Paul Boutin, writing for posted several interesting queries:

User 672368 progressed over several weeks from “you’re pregnant he doesn’t want the baby” to “foods to eat when pregnant” to “abortion clinics in charlotte nc” to “can christians be forgiven for abortion.” User 3696023 revealed that “i hurt when i think too much i love road trips i hate my weight i fear being alone for the rest of my life” and user 190827 went from “talking parrot jokes” and “poems about a red rose” to “sexy dogs and hot girls.” (Boutin also observed that “nobody knows how to spell ‘bestiality.’”)

Some other widely discussed strings involve user 9486162 who seems to be considering suicide (“how to kill yourself by natural gas”); user 2708, who searched for “I hate my ex boyfriend,” “how to humiliate someone,” “free angry stuff to send an ex lover” and “” User 17556639 who searched repeatedly for terms including “how to kill your wife,” “murder photo” and “decapitated photo” — interrupting that string momentarily to search for “steak and cheese.”

And this raises another sticky question: should the police be alerted to the identity of the potential suicide victim, vengeful stalker, or wife killer? The San Jose Mercury News answers that question with a resounding no. “Searches don’t prove anything other than interest,” said the News. People must be able to make queries without fear that the records will be handed over, misconstrued, or used against them.” “Searching for ‘Al Quaida training camps’ doesn’t mean you want to enroll in one,” echoed the Los Angeles Times.

Indeed, to the outsider, it might appear that Thelma Arnold is suffering from a wide range of illnesses. Her search history includes “hand tremors,” “nicotine effects on the body,” “dry mouth,” and “bipolar.” But when asked, Ms. Arnold reported that she routinely researched medical conditions in order to provide counsel for her friends. Explaining her search about nicotine, Ms. Arnold explained, “I have a friend who needs to quit smoking and I want to help her do it.”

As AOL has shown, Internet search records are very much like a diary. The intention may be to keep the information private, but the content can all too easily wind up in the wrong hands. John Battelle, the author of the 2005 book The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, suggests that AOL’s mistake, while unfortunate, might not be all bad if it leads to a greater understanding of precisely what is at stake with Internet searches. “It’s only by these kinds of screw-ups and unintended behind the curtain views that we can push dialogue along,” said Battelle.

Search engines reportedly keep their information private unless compelled by a subpoena or court order to share it. “That’s a start,” said the Los Angeles Times, “but it would be far more comforting if they had clear data retention policies limiting how long information could be linked to individual accounts or Internet addresses. Those policies should also be public so market forces could help shape them.”

“My goodness, it’s my whole personal life,” said an understandably shocked Thelma Arnold upon learning that the New York Times had so easily procured her identity from the content of her Internet searches. “I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.”

• Click here to read Lis' Column, "Lis and the Single Girl"


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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.