Feeds

AOL publishes database of users' intentions

Your search history, right here

The Power of One eBook: Top reasons to choose HP BladeSystem

AOL Labs prompted a weekend of hyperventilation in the 'blogosphere' by publishing the search queries from 650,000 users. This mini-scandal may yet prove valuable, however, as it reveals an intriguing psychological study of the boundaries of what is considered acceptable privacy.

In his turgid book on Google - one so obsequious and unchallenging that Google bought thousands of copies to give away to its staff - former dot.bust publisher John Battelle enthused about something he called the "database of intentions". The information collected by search engines, he trumpeted, would be a marketer's dream, and tell us more about ourselves than we ever realized we could know. AOL's publication is the first general release of such a database to the public.

But hold on a minute. Is it, really?

AOL's data was anonymized, with user identification removed. The search logs contained 10.8m normalized queries from 658,086 unique users, collected between March 1 and 31 May this year, amounting to around a third of all queries made by its US users. The data has since been removed, but an AOL research paper which was built on the data can still be found, here [PDF, 228kb]. You may find it about as enlightening as similar studies we've covered before (see People more drunk at weekends, researchers discover).

Although the user's IDs were hidden, and didn't contain information on what the user actually clicked on, some argued that the data permitted personally identifiable information to be inferred from the query logs.

Something called TechCrunch, a weblog devoted to hyping its publisher's personal investments and companies created by his friends, explained how:

"The most serious problem is the fact that many people often search on their own name, or those of their friends and family, to see what information is available about them on the net. Combine these ego searches with porn queries and you have a serious embarrassment. Combine them with 'buy ecstasy' and you have evidence of a crime. Combine it with an address, social security number, etc., and you have an identity theft waiting to happen. The possibilities are endless."

Now, you may be thinking - that only serves people right for conducting vanity searches. But more seriously, there are dangers in following this line of reasoning.

It's not only individuals who "ego surf", it could be the individual's spouse, a member of their family, a colleague, or even their web stalker. (I've had a few).

Similarly, is the query "buy ecstasy" necessarily the intention of a raver, or tweaker? It might be a parent, a neighborhood watch scheme, or a promoter, keen to stamp out drug dealing at his venue before an event.

So the "database of intentions", then, turns out to be more more of "a database of inferences" - as reflective as it is of the inferrer as the web surfer.

And if, as TechCrunch weakly suggests, the act of typing "buy ecstasy" into a search is itself "evidence of a crime", then there will be a lot of happy policeman out there this evening, for whom the business of catching criminals has just been made a lot easier.

The" precogs" of Phillip K Dick's story Minority Report - who are able to predict crimes before they take place, thus allowing them to be prevented - will no longer be necessary. Plod will simply be able issue a pre-emptive warrant for a crime that never took place, on the basis of a user's Google results, no?

So that's one line of sloppy thinking dealt with. It ignores another, however.

Top three mobile application threats

Next page: Leave No Trace

More from The Register

next story
Stick a 4K in them: Super high-res TVs are DONE
4,000 pixels is niche now... Don't say we didn't warn you
BBC goes offline in MASSIVE COCKUP: Stephen Fry partly muzzled
Auntie tight-lipped as major outage rolls on
Philip K Dick 'Nazi alternate reality' story to be made into TV series
Amazon Studios, Ridley Scott firm to produce The Man in the High Castle
iPad? More like iFAD: We reveal why Apple fell into IBM's arms
But never fear fanbois, you're still lapping up iPhones, Macs
Bose says today is F*** With Dre Day: Beats sued in patent battle
Music gear giant seeks some of that sweet, sweet Apple pie
There's NOTHING on TV in Europe – American video DOMINATES
Even France's mega subsidies don't stop US content onslaught
You! Pirate! Stop pirating, or we shall admonish you politely. Repeatedly, if necessary
And we shall go about telling people you smell. No, not really
Too many IT conferences to cover? MICROSOFT to the RESCUE!
Yet more word of cuts emerges from Redmond
Joe Average isn't worth $10 a year to Mark Zuckerberg
The Social Network deflates the PC resurgence with mobile-only usage prediction
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable
Learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.