My 1/31/10 Missoulian column
As I wrote last week, when you use a Web search engine your searches and outgoing clicks are stored by that search company, resulting in large amounts of information used for advertising and marketing. Much of that information is retained for months, and, under pressure, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have recently reduced the time they keep such information.
But the sensitivity of search engine information was demonstrated in 2006 when researchers at America Online released data on 20 million Web searches made by around 650,000 people. The data were soon removed from public access, but not before they were distributed and analyzed by others.
At the time, AOL only kept search data for one month, but the data release constituted three month’s of information, specifically collected for research. Now known as AOL’s “Valdez” (referring to the Alaskan oil spill), the incident is still regarded as a test case of the privacy issues concerning search engine data.
Even though the original searchers’ AOL logins were changed to random numbers in an attempt to keep enough information private, reporters for the New York Times were able to easily piece together the identity of one person.
They connected the dots to her identity by the clues in her searches for information ranging from real estate home addresses, last names, health matters, dog care and others.
When the New York Times reporters contacted the 60-year-old widow, she was surprised that she was able to be identified and “shocked” that AOL had kept and published the data.
“That’s my whole personal life,” she said. “I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.” The New York Times article.
That’s not all: When search engines combine user search information with other information – from Web cookies, personal profiles from search engine accounts and other sources – the results can be even more specific and wide-ranging.
“We all have a right to privacy,” the victim of the AOL data leak said. “Nobody should have found this all out.”
All of us as search engine users should wonder: Is there another search engine “Valdez” on the way?
Next week: The End User License Agreement and online privacy.
This week in Mac Q & A: Why Should I Buy a Mac?
February’s Montana InBusinessMonthly column:Apple Growing and Competing in the Business World.