The AOL Data Release: A Tipping Point?

By Terry Calhoun

Whether this will affect the search behavior of many other people is unknown. It d'esn’t seem to me, from casual conversations, that many of my acquaintances would have even heard of this security beach if they hadn’t learned of it from me.

It certainly has not changed my own searching habits. I’m not the least bit concerned about being exposed as searching for “lolitas” or “how to murder your wife.” It could be that in a future political state a bit more totalitarian than the current administration has so far pushed the U.S. to be, I could begin to be a little worried about some of my searches; for example, about Pat Robertson’s claims to bench press 2,000 pounds.

Some thoughts by others, given a few days to think it over:

“The extent to which search engine queries alone can reveal one’s identity should be an eye-opener to individuals and privacy advocates alike.”

“Search terms can expose the most intimate details of a person’s life: private information about family problems, medical history, financial situation, political and religious beliefs, sexual preferences, and much more.”

What I find the most interesting is that the nature of the search queries captured by AOL do not necessarily showcase the intelligence of the people searching for something. Not only is there seemingly a complete lack of Boolean inquiry structure, but analysis of the released data by the folks at AOL Stalker indicates that in 47 percent of searches people doing the browsing didn’t even click on a single result. Not an indication of intelligent searching. But, then, that kind of captures what we’ve all thought about the generic AOL user for more than a decade now.

I used AOL Stalker to search for a few things of interest to me:

“Terry Calhoun”: Bummer, no one searched for me. 20,000,000 searches and no one cared. Darn.

“Ann Arbor”: There were, among the 20,000,000+ searches, 154 for “Ann Arbor.” Unfortunately, they were nearly all commercial in nature and pretty boring. People wanted to find out where to get a tattoo, about events in Ann Arbor, about real estate, and so forth.

“Disc Golf”: Only 47 searches in the database. Again, rather boring. People are either looking for courses (not knowing about the PDGA online database, I guess), bags, or tournaments.

“East Liverpool”: How about my home town? Wow, 70 searches with that phrase in it, about a small Ohio River Valley town that has had little besides a series of economic disasters since the early 1950s.

But with “East Liverpool,” I did find a personal connection! Many of the searches were by user No. 18923, looking for “ east liverpool ohio online schooling.” Maybe even most of the 70 searches were on this topic. It relates to be because my brother, Randy, is not the director of the Buckeye On-Line School for Success, which is headquartered in East Liverpool. (I wrote about its precursor in Pennsylvania some time ago.) But it g'es to show, once more, the inanity of some AOL users when you realize that the user in question searched on the exact same phrase something like 40 times over a couple of days. Did they expect something to change? Why not vary a word or two? Who knows.

“Karl Rove”: Well, these are not exactly political activists whose search strings we can now peek at. “Karl Rove” was searched for exactly 14 times out of 20,000,000+. In the five searches that combined “Karl Rove” with “indictment,” “indictment” (sic) was misspelled three times.

On the other hand, “Hillary Clinton” was searched for 93 times, “Bill Clinton,” 123 times, “John McCain” 29 times, “Dick Cheney” 12 times, and of course “George Bush,” 426 times.

“Lolita,” on the other hand, was searched for 1,108 times. One hopes those searchers can in fact be identified and that they are sweating it out. I don’t mean those who may have been researching the book, but those who are looking for “preteen Lolita sex.”

“Porn” was searched for 15,491 times. The first few responses served up by the AOL Stalker site indicate people looking for “free porn,” “midget porn,” and “preteen porn pics.”

“Ann Coulter”: Dang, she was searched for 145 times. I guess hatred is of more interest to these folks than politics, although a number of the searches were for (shudder) “ann coulter nude.” (The same person searched for “cher nude.”) And only 4 searches for “Maureen Dowd,” none of them including the word “nude.”

And more of these weird, repeated searches. User No. 2067984 searched for “ann coulter” 69 times between 3:14am on March 6 through 3:39am on the same day. Why? I just don’t get this.

These folks aren’t exactly strong on environmental interests, either. In the entire database there are only 3 searches for “global warming” and 26 for “sustainability.”

It is very disappointing that there is not more of an outcry about the storage of this information over time in ways that make it identifiable to others. I know, I know, the commercial value of knowing what your customers are searching for and how they are doing it is tremendous.

On the other hand, also “tremendous” is our natural inclination to think that the things people search for are direct indications of their conscious thought. The fellow who started out looking for “how to murder your wife” may or may not be thinking of murdering his wife. But we are all convinced, in the absence of other evidence, that he was. This is not a good thing.

He didn’t do anything, except for basically thinking out loud. As my favorite singing artist, Leonard Cohen, sings in “Jazz Police,” “Jazz Police are looking through my folders. Jazz Police are talking to my niece. Jazz Police have their final orders.” Am I in trouble with the Jazz Police?

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