August 7, 2006 8:05 PM PDT

AOL's disturbing glimpse into users' lives

(continued from previous page)

AOL user 9486162 appears to live near Edisto Beach, S.C., and could be a poker aficionado who's a fan of the University of Kentucky's football team. User 9486162 rarely used his or her AOL account for searching in March, but was preoccupied with one disturbing topic on April 26:
university of kentucky football
hold'em poker school
ways to kill yourself
suicide by natural gas
how to kill oneself by natural gas
assisted suicide
suicide by overdosing
how long does carbon monoxide poisoning take to kill a person
over dose ways to commit suicide
university of kentucky 2007 football recruits
texas hold'em poker on line seminars
employment needed- louisville ky

Whoever wrote that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned had clearly never experienced the Internet. For a three-month period, AOL user 2708, apparently a resident of the greater Boston area, was searching for little else. Her search terms suggest that she signed up her ex-boyfriend for Columbia House CDs, articles on "gay life," and Christian literature--while shopping for women's Harley Davidson boots. User 2708's ex apparently lives in New Hampshire:
revenge tactics
the woman's book of revenge
dirty tricks for chicks
voice changer
how to humiliate someone
bill me pay later for cd's
scams to play on people
how to get revenge on an old lover
i hate my ex boyfriend
how to really make someone hurt for the pain they caused to someone else
columbia house
advice from women who have seeked revenge on old lovers
how to say goodbye hurtfully
how to report child neglect in the state of new hampshire
free articles on gay life that can be mailed to me
free christian things
free gay magazines
free angry stuff to send to an ex lover
how to permanently delete information from your hard drive
women's harley davidson boots
the worst thing to send someone via email
thong dancewear
what can i do to an old lover for revenge
mean revenge tactics
death records in hampstead new hampshire

Searches performed by one AOL user living near Charlton, Mass., appear to show how one man went through the process of divorce, finding an apartment, and fighting for custody of his children. This is what AOL user 4331025 typed in over a three-month period:
charlton ma apartments
gourmet condiments
cheer up plaques
mass custody definitions
kids health
wastewater jobs mass
visitation schedule
kids gym places in worcester
mass wastewater certification exam forums
counter surveilance products
sample visitation schedules
how are fat girlfriends
salem probate court decisions
revenge for a cheating spouse
civil war a fathers guide to wining custody
mass licensed daycare providers
fish chowder recipes
win your child custody war books for sale
martindale hubbell
first date dos and donts
how to satisfy a woman
penis enlargement
how to get revenge on exwife
how to do a background check with a liscense number

Learning to be single is a common theme among the lonely souls hoping to find relationship advice through AOL Search. AOL user 100906 appears to live in Cincinnati and is wrestling with serious personal and career issues at the same time:
cinncinati bell iwireless
addicted to love
women who love to much
learning to be single
should you call your ex
when your ex goes out of his way to run into u
slim upper thighs
inches a weigh
prophet mohamed life teaching
missed period or light spotting
birthcontrol for morning after pill
l&n federal credit union
hes just not that into u
i dont have a career
should i get back with my divorced husband
when you have less property than you u bought
what talking in tounges really means
questions about the bible
do i quailfy for food stamps in kentucky

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Here is a web interface to search the database
Here is the web database to do the search.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by head999 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
i like this one more
posted this link on Digg, personally I think it's a lot more intuitive

<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by foofahrah (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
This goes to show you...
AOL users really are dumb, who actually writes that into a search engine?

My favoriate is 17556639, who later turned from wife killing and dead photos to his dirtiest search "poop" - no lie.
Posted by osbjmg (14 comments )
Reply Link Flag
AOL might want to rethink becoming a free service
They might need the income to pay for lawsuits.
Posted by rcrusoe (1305 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why would anyone sue. It shows no way to track anyone and shows no names, addresses, or the like. The only people suing would be money-hungry lawyers, with a few " Defendents".
Posted by nintendo812 (10 comments )
Link Flag
I hope law enforcement isn't letting this opportunity slip
I would like to see anonymous user 17720123 get what's coming to him.
Posted by ts3920 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: I hope law enforcement isn't letting this opportunity slip by
There's at least one person in there that I wouldn't mind seeing
get nailed. But I'm sure there'll be a million people saying thats
horrible because his privacy was invaded. Who cares what type
of grizzly garbage he was doing....

Charles R. Whealton
Charles Whealton @
Posted by chuck_whealton (521 comments )
Link Flag
Anyone ever think it's just random?
Did anyone besides myself ever stop to think that these searches could just be random? At times I might search for something on television or something a friend mentions. If I search for information on a particular college, does that mean I'm an aspiring college student? It could - but in my case, I just wanted to find out something about that college for no real particular reason - just curiosity.

A user's search records could not (and should not) be construed as a profile of that person. While it's interesting, I don't think it really tells us much about the user in real life.
Posted by wiley14 (39 comments )
Reply Link Flag
That's what building a profile is all about
One or two searched taken in isolation may be random. But when you look at all of the searches performed over a period of days or weeks you can build a pretty accurate profile of a user's interests. And I don't for a moment believe that a user who is repeatedly searching for child pornography is doing so 'randomly'.
Posted by ts3920 (2 comments )
Link Flag
not random
you can gather a random search here are there but with-in the context of 3 months worth of searching you do get a pretty good idea of what the underlining meaning behind there searches..
this isnt right because its a form of voyouerism.
and what people think/write about unless stated to be fact should (never) be used agenst you..
now remember the government has access to this info.
Posted by mrcoldheart (1 comment )
Link Flag
What the ...
What kind of search are those? Who puts a complete sentence to search for something? I never get the result I want if I put "how long will the swelling last after my tummy tuck". Come on... Give me a break.
Posted by clee123 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Search proxies are the only way
I dont know why people dont use them most are free and theres no way to identify you and the search terms you use.

Heres one.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by talledega500 (23 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Scary, bizarre, and yet somehow entertaining
Had a look for myself. The first one I came across seemed to be a family that shared the same computer.

The elders were searching for cheap Mexican medications, looking for extra ways to make cash, and looking up talk show stories. Meanwhile one of the male members of the household was concerned about a rash in the nether reigons (Unclear from the data which one of them that might have been).

It was a little strange to look into someone else's quest for knowledge, but I was rolling on the floor when I saw about eight searches for "Rash on P***s".

On a more serious note, it seems that most people treat the "search" box like some kind of..."Magic 8 ball". Ask a question and let the magic box give all the answers.

I've been to a lot of places on the Wild Wild Web, and have seen a lot of strange and disturbing things. This one takes the cake though.

I bet some marketers are already hiring staff to comb through the data, as is (perhaps) the Government (possibly even foriegn Governments). Also bet there will be a flurry of new laws, and lawsuits in reaction to this. (Although I don't know who would want to own up to some of the searches)

Not too long ago, I decided to check out some of the "partners" that major websites disclose in thier privacy policies. You know,... the marketing firms that most sites place about 3 or 4 links away from obvious view in their policies. (You have read at least one of your favorite site's policies, haven't you?)

At a major site's list, about the third one in, I found one company that prided itself on being able to give very detailed personal information about individual users.

How you ask?: Simple. They used in store displays (With rebates and such), contests (Where you fill out your name address and phone numbers) combined with an online area to see if you had "Won", or to claim your rebate or offer.

When you visit the site, they get your IP, and any other information you give them. Add all that together, and you get the recipe for information aggregation at it's worst.

This data that AOL released is child's play compared to some of the more advanced tactics of information brokering that isn't too widely known about.

Most sites claim that they only use "Aggregate, non-personal" information, this is probably true in most cases, unless you give them something more. Most websites have the classic disclaimer about any information that you decide to give in ordinary use of the site is fair game for them to use.

Although it's (in my opinion) in bad taste for AOL to release such revealing info., it's not beyond clauses that I've seen in most privacy policies.

Increasingly, web searches are being scutinezed, and used as evidence in court cases. I don't think it will be too long until some sort of law will adress the issue. The real question is who will benifit? The Government...Average Joe....Corporations?

Remember - What you type (for now at least, and maybe less so in future) is not as private as it would seem.
Posted by Ghost Spider (27 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Glimpse into the mundane
I pity the fool whose job it becomes to wade through all that crap. Advertisers don't need it. They have better tools available. The police can't handle the amount of info they receive on a daily basis. The NSA, hell, they already have you if you used a trigger word like bomb, terror, mom, or apple pie, in any e-mail, cell call, etc., and are backed up till the big one hits. AOL empty the recycle bin, man.
Posted by aqvarivs (38 comments )
Reply Link Flag
FBI might be interested in this guy
Check out the search terms of this person, user ID: 1227287 on
Some of his search terms: bomb making, switchblade knives, bullet proof vest, small fry stun guns, making silencers...
Posted by 202578300049013666264380294439 (137 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The ethical black hole
Where does a news organization draw the line between reporting on the effects of breaches of privacy such as this, and contributing to those effects? Certainly this is newsworthy, given not only the scale of the breach but the highly personal information disclosed. But CNet (and most likely other news outlets) has chosen to document, in enough detail to provide an alarmingly complex picture, the information that was disclosed. They made the effort to compile it in such a way as to provide a chronological history of the searches in question, tied it all to a unique user ID, and then provided an editorial summary of what it all might mean.

Sure, it's fascinating, and a bit prurient, to peek into other people's personal lives. And this stems from AOL's messup, which CNet is merely reporting. But while CNet most likely sees this article as shedding light on the seriousness of the privacy issues at stake, it is also contributing greatly to the potential damage from such a breach -- merely possessing this database would not get the average person to the notion that user 1515830 has been a victim of incest, has attempted (or considered) suicide, wants to adopt, had cosmetic surgery, and so on. Like any good journalism, it attaches meaning and context to the information -- which is a very bad thing if you happen to be user 1515830.

Of course, we don't know who user 1515830 is. But she does. Perhaps that piece of information is included in another database, which someone else will accidentally leak, which some other entity or individual (quite possibly in the belief they are simply putting out the facts, acting on behalf of the public good) will make easy for us to understand. In which case, CNet's gift-wrapping of this information would become not just compelling journalism, but a clear contribution to the magnitude of the privacy breach.

Perhaps law enforcement will choose to compel AOL to disclose the true identity of some of these users, and some of you would probably argue that they have a responsibility to investigate. Think about the implications of that. It's difficult to argue that the US government investigating an American citizen based on improperly disclosed search queries, which themselves do not constitute a violation of the law in a society with a Bill of Rights, is not a violation of privacy. It's easy to say that guy over THERE is a Bad Guy, so he deserves no privacy... until some category you happen to belong to becomes Bad, and you're the one being investigated and harassed.

What could CNet have done differently? I honestly think that had they not published the user IDs, this would not be much of an issue. We would simply have to trust their word that some actual person performed the searches in question. With the user ID attached, the assertion carries the weight of fact, of documentation. True, such specifics are what lends credibility and gravity to the story. It also changes the story from merely a disturbing news item to a semi-public humiliation to those involved, and an invitation for some to go digging even further.

The fact that the information is already out there is irrelevant to CNet's journalistic integrity and responsibility to its readers. I could file FOIA requests for lots of embarrassing information that is technically available, and then publish it all. I could also legally obtain your credit information, past addresses and phone numbers, bank account numbers and plenty more. I could dig through your garbage and find out what you buy, maybe find some personal things you threw out. But the fact that the information is "out there" doesn't absolve me of any responsibility for the effects of providing that information to millions of other people.
Posted by Ikthog (43 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Changing Patterns
I think that with the release of this sort of information, internet users will be changing their ways. Now they'll be more cautious whenever they type in a search query.

If government agencies like the FBI or NSA got access to search queries from all search providers, and it became public knowledge (for example with legal aid), then information may lose value very quickly. Well there may be a few dumb shmucks that'll get caught out, but most people would stop querying potentially incriminating information. Therefore it would probably be in the best interest of those sort of goverment agencies to make it seem as though they can't get access to your information, and make it seem safe to search for whatever you want.
Posted by maverick_nick (205 comments )
Reply Link Flag
AOL users analysis
We analyze particular AOL users at <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by max_evil (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Closet anyone?
Doesn't anyone have anything better to do? Obviously, not. I don't either.

Simply put: I think another approach would've been better, quieter and not a lot of hype where now society is involved by placing their own opinions (yes, like me), time by employees or people who are busy is reading this, money by investors losing them because of this hype or non-hype, everyone in the planet for not caring enough to assume something is wrong with these individuals and suggest to them some help; unassume and do nothing and again, the approach could've been different thereby the individual's privacy is maintained.

Remember, we are a society who is fighting to maintain the privacy our ancestors, forefathers have written up. We are not Congress and if we are going to act like Congress by "prying individuals" accidentally or non-accidentally, then YOU have to approach this in a manner where you deem necessary to ASSIST them be it mentally or emotionally, BUT give these individuals their right to privacy as they are not convicted felons or still innocent until guilty. We are doing the same thing, which is all psychological! We're already thinking that they are this or that, or will do this or will do that. And it's amazing how society is: if a woman or man feels that they (the victim) are in harms way and calls the police for protection, the police won't do anything until something happens! However, when one finds something like what we're commenting on now, how fast one will perceive that they have either done it or will do it! Now, that's sick! That is dyslexic! No wonder the world is what it is today! And you say the kids are (*34!@$ I think we need to take a real close look at ourselves before pointing fingers to America's future Mayor, future Congress(wo)man, future President!
Posted by jma1117 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Um, what the hell did you just say?

Cars computering my phone-ma'am in midnight's query of turnip recruiter?
Posted by mewgirl (1 comment )
Link Flag
Posted by Louis_Vuitton_handbags (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

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