August 7, 2006 8:05 PM PDT

AOL's disturbing glimpse into users' lives

AOL's publication of the search histories of more than 650,000 of its users has yielded more than just one of the year's bigger privacy scandals.

The 21 million search queries also have exposed an innumerable number of life stories ranging from the mundane to the illicit and bizarre.

For its part, AOL has apologized for a researcher's disclosure of the massive database and has yanked the file from its Web site. It was too late: The database already had been mirrored.

That database does not include names or user identities. Instead, it lists only a unique ID number for each user. What that means is that it's possible to view the search terms that users of a single account typed in while using AOL Search during a three-month period. (Google, Yahoo, and MSN Search aren't included.)

From that massive list of search terms, for instance, it's possible to guess that AOL user 710794 is an overweight golfer, owner of a 1986 Porsche 944 and 1998 Cadillac SLS, and a fan of the University of Tennessee Volunteers Men's Basketball team. The same user, 710794, is interested in the Cherokee County School District in Canton, Ga., and has looked up the Suwanee Sports Academy in Suwanee, Ga., which caters to local youth, and the Youth Basketball of America's Georgia affiliate.

That's pretty normal. What's not is that user 710794 also regularly searches for "lolitas," a term commonly used to describe photographs and videos of minors who are nude or engaged in sexual acts.

The following are a series of excerpts compiled by CNET from the AOL search logs, with each user's search terms included in chronological order.

AOL user 311045 apparently owns a Scion XB automobile in need of new brake pads that is in the process of being upgraded with performance oil filters. User 311045, possibly a Florida resident, is preoccupied with another topic as well:
how to change brake pads on scion xb
2005 us open cup florida state champions
how to get revenge on a ex
how to get revenge on a ex girlfriend
how to get revenge on a friend who f---ed you over
replacement bumper for scion xb
florida department of law enforcement
crime stoppers florida

Based on the number of local searches, AOL user 1515830 appears to be a resident of Ohio's Mahoning County. On March 1, user 1515830 was trying to find the amount of calories in chai tea and bananas. But on March 9, the searches took a darker turn:
chai tea calories
calories in bananas
aftermath of incest
how to tell your family you're a victim of incest
pottery barn
surgical help for depression
oakland raiders comforter set
can you adopt after a suicide attempt
who is not allowed to adopt
i hate men
medication to enhance female desire
jobs in denver colorado
teaching positions in denver colorado
how long will the swelling last after my tummy tuck
divorce laws in ohio
free remote keyloggers
baked macaroni and cheese with sour cream
how to deal with anger
teaching jobs with the denver school system
marriage counseling tips
anti psychotic drugs

Revenge is a common theme, though of course it's impossible to guess whether an AOL user has criminal intent or is in the middle of writing a true-crime novel. In the case of AOL user 17556639, the jury's still out:
how to kill your wife
pictures of dead people
photo of dead people
car crash photo

Some AOL users seem to be worried that an abusive partner in a relationship may come back to hurt them. This person, AOL user 005315, searched for information about prison inmates, gang members, sociopaths in relationships, and women who were murdered in southern California last year:
resources for utility bill paying assistance in southern california
section 8 housing southern california
los angeles county ca. gang member pictures
orange county california jails inmate information
fractured ankle
letters and responses written by women to emotionally
abusive partners
men that use emotional and physical abandonment to control their partner
warning signs of a mans infidelity or sexual addiction
the sociopathic relationship
southern california newspaper stories about woman murdered by boyfriend in pomona december2005
names of females murdered or found dead in pomona california in 2005
characteristics of a sociopath in a relationship
a person that shows lack of empathy
help in writing a letter to a abusive narcissistic ex boyfriend
how to hurt the narcissistic man
retaliating against the narcisisstic man

CONTINUED: Lovelorn and desperate…
Page 1 | 2 | 3

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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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