More From The AOL Screw Up

And just like that one of the supposedly anonymous AOL searchers has been identified. As reported in the New York Times this morning searcher number 4417749 has been identified as Thelma Arnold of Lilburn, Georgia. Her identity was found simply by following the trail of searches assigned to the ID. That didn’t take long.

In the article A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749 (The article will only be freely accessibly for a limited time and you may need to sign up to see it) several of Ms. Arnold’s searches are listed. From ‘landscapers in Lilburn, Ga’ to queries including the last name ‘Arnold’ to ‘homes sold in shadow lake subdivision qwinnett county georgia’ the trail led straight to Ms. Arnold.

So much for the anonymous IDs AOL assigned to the searches. How many more people will ultimately be connected to their private searches. For Ms. Arnold

“My goodness, it’s my whole personal life, I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.”

And just as I alluded to in my last post on the subject Be Careful What You Search For the searches are often misleading. Ms. Arnold routinely searched medical conditions for friends though given the searches it would be easy to assume she either suffered from a variety of diseases or is perhaps a bit of a hypochondriac. The fact that the searches can be so misleading is one of the main reasons it can be so dangerous to have them released or even recorded in the first place.

It’s not a stretch to see people being accused of any number of things because of a search tied to their name. Or further convicted of a crime because of them. That might be an extreme, but is it really that far fetched to see someone harassed by all who think they suffer from some embarrassing malady because they happened to type it into a search engine.

Ms. Arnold may not be alone in the coming days

Several bloggers claimed yesterday to have identified other AOL users by examining data, while others hunted for particularly entertaining or shocking search histories. Some programmers made this easier by setting up Web sites that let people search the database of searches.

There may be a silver lining to the exposure of the AOL searches as John Battelle mentions on his blog. That being it brings the whole topic of these recorded search histories to the forefront of the media and allows us to have conversations about where this all may lead. Conversations about what value the search history has and is that value worth the risk to those whose lives may be invaded and injured.

Ms. Arnold’s life has certainly been interrupted and we all know more about her than she ever thought we would or more than any of us has a right to know. We probably won’t learn more about her though if AOL screws up again. Ms. Arnold plans to drop her AOL subscription.

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  1. I find it unbelievable that a company as big as AOL could mess up as big as this.
    After the fuss Google made about keeping search data private AOL give it away without even being asked to.

    What were they thinking?

    How long before a criminal identifies an individual from this search data and uses the data to commit identity theft? Apparently there were a number of credit card numbers and social security numbers in the search data.

  2. I agree. It’s something that we all need to start discussing more. This was a screw up and there’s not reason to believe it won’t happen again at AOL or any of the other search engines. And what about all the smaller engines who may not have the same security in place as the major eninges.

    I’m sure many of those smaller search engines would have difficulty keeping someone determined from getting in to their database.

    There’s certainly a lot of use in the data for marketing and simply for understanding search better, but does that value outweigh what could be lost by the wrong search data falling into the wrong hands?

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