Thelma Arnold’s identity was betrayed by AOL records of her Web searches


A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749

Published: August 9, 2006

Buried in a list of 20 million Web search queries
collected by AOL and recently released on the Internet is user No.
4417749. The number was assigned by the company to protect the
searcher’s anonymity, but it was not much of a shield.


Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times

Thelma Arnold’s identity was betrayed by AOL records of her Web
searches, like ones for her dog, Dudley, who clearly has a problem.

No. 4417749 conducted
hundreds of searches over a three-month period on topics ranging from
“numb fingers” to “60 single men” to “dog that urinates on everything.”

And
search by search, click by click, the identity of AOL user No. 4417749
became easier to discern. There are queries for “landscapers in
Lilburn, Ga,” several people with the last name Arnold and “homes sold
in shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia.”

It did not
take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a
62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her
friends’ medical ailments and loves her three dogs. “Those are my
searches,” she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her.

AOL
removed the search data from its site over the weekend and apologized
for its release, saying it was an unauthorized move by a team that had
hoped it would benefit academic researchers.

But the detailed
records of searches conducted by Ms. Arnold and 657,000 other
Americans, copies of which continue to circulate online, underscore how
much people unintentionally reveal about themselves when they use
search engines — and how risky it can be for companies like AOL, Google and Yahoo to compile such data.

Those
risks have long pitted privacy advocates against online marketers and
other Internet companies seeking to profit from the Internet’s unique
ability to track the comings and goings of users, allowing for more
focused and therefore more lucrative advertising.

But the
unintended consequences of all that data being compiled, stored and
cross-linked are what Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the
Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy rights group in
Washington, called “a ticking privacy time bomb.”

Mr. Rotenberg
pointed to Google’s own joust earlier this year with the Justice
Department over a subpoena for some of its search data. The company
successfully fended off the agency’s demand in court, but several other
search companies, including AOL, complied. The Justice Department
sought the information to help it defend a challenge to a law that is
meant to shield children from sexually explicit material.

“We
supported Google at the time,” Mr. Rotenberg said, “but we also said
that it was a mistake for Google to be saving so much information
because it creates a risk.”

Ms. Arnold, who agreed to discuss her
searches with a reporter, said she was shocked to hear that AOL had
saved and published three months’ worth of them. “My goodness, it’s my
whole personal life,” she said. “I had no idea somebody was looking
over my shoulder.”

In the privacy of her four-bedroom home, Ms.
Arnold searched for the answers to scores of life’s questions, big and
small. How could she buy “school supplies for Iraq children”? What is
the “safest place to live”? What is “the best season to visit Italy”?

Her
searches are a catalog of intentions, curiosity, anxieties and
quotidian questions. There was the day in May, for example, when she
typed in “termites,” then “tea for good health” then “mature living,”
all within a few hours.

Her queries mirror millions of those
captured in AOL’s database, which reveal the concerns of expectant
mothers, cancer patients, college students and music lovers. User No.
2178 searches for “foods to avoid when breast feeding.” No. 3482401
seeks guidance on “calorie counting.” No. 3483689 searches for the
songs “Time After Time” and “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

At times,
the searches appear to betray intimate emotions and personal dilemmas.
No. 3505202 asks about “depression and medical leave.” No. 7268042
types “fear that spouse contemplating cheating.”

There are also
many thousands of sexual queries, along with searches about “child
porno” and “how to kill oneself by natural gas” that raise questions
about what legal authorities can and should do with such information.

But
while these searches can tell the casual observer — or the sociologist
or the marketer — much about the person who typed them, they can also
prove highly misleading.

At first glace, it might appear that
Ms. Arnold fears she is suffering from a wide range of ailments. Her
search history includes “hand tremors,” “nicotine effects on the body,”
“dry mouth” and “bipolar.” But in an interview, Ms. Arnold said she
routinely researched medical conditions for her friends to assuage
their anxieties. Explaining her queries about nicotine, for example,
she said: “I have a friend who needs to quit smoking and I want to help
her do it.”

Asked about Ms. Arnold, an AOL spokesman, Andrew Weinstein,
reiterated the company’s position that the data release was a mistake.
“We apologize specifically to her,” he said. “There is not a whole lot
we can do.”

Mr. Weinstein said he knew of
no other cases thus far where users had been identified as a result of
the search data, but he was not surprised. “We acknowledged that there
was information that could potentially lead to people being identified,
which is why we were so angry.”

AOL keeps a record of each
user’s search queries for one month, Mr. Weinstein said. This allows
users to refer back to previous searches and is also used by AOL to
improve the quality of its search technology. The three-month data that
was released came from a special system meant for AOL’s internal
researchers that does not record the users’ AOL screen names, he said.

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.

John
Battelle, the author of the 2005 book “The Search: How Google and Its
Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture,” said
AOL’s misstep, while unfortunate, could have a silver lining if people
began to understand just what was at stake. In his book, he says search
engines are mining the priceless “database of intentions” formed by the
world’s search requests.

“It’s only by these kinds of screw-ups
and unintended behind-the-curtain views that we can push this dialogue
along,” Mr. Battelle said. “As unhappy as I am to see this data on
people leaked, I’m heartened that we will have this conversation as a
culture, which is long overdue.”

Ms. Arnold says she loves
online research, but the disclosure of her searches has left her
disillusioned. In response, she plans to drop her AOL subscription. “We
all have a right to privacy,” she said. “Nobody should have found this
all out.”

Saul Hansell contributed reporting for this article.

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