Bits from Bill

Technology thoughts leaking from the brain of "Bill Pytlovany"

Thursday, August 10, 2006

AOL Search Data Reveals All

Earlier this year the Justice Department requested search data from a number of companies. Google made headlines as one of the major search engines who refused to supply any search data and went to court to protect it. (More Info)
The government was surprised because after all, they weren't asking your user names, just an ID that could show trends from individual users. The research was on how people find child porn so how dare Google refuse. Right?
AOL Saved  Searches 
Well, not all companies refused. In fact, some imbecile at AOL made the mistake of posting search data online where anyone could download it.
I've spent the day analyzing over 2 gigs of AOL search data and I can only say "thank you Google". I was able to access the data and I’ve imported it into an nice, neat Access database. I am amazed at how easy it can be to actually identify a real person based only on their Search terms.  This is really going to make me think twice about what I search for. It certainly won't be on AOL.
The New York Times identified AOL user #4417749 as Thelma Arnold, a 62 year old widow who lived in Liburn, GA.  All they had was the topics that she searched on. How could that be possible? ( Read More )
It’s been hard to stop playing with the data and write this Blog article.  I have also identified a number of people who found and purchased WinPatrol after searching on AOL.  I now know more about these folks than I really want to.

For instance,  User #3276143 found WinPatrol by searching on “Startup program removal downloads”.
He also searched on “Jenny Craig diet”, “free preview sex movies”, “pocavalleybank”, “tractor supply”, “” and the really strange one “amc pacer”.

User #6303071 is into knitting, clay pot cooking, opusinteractive, tom cruise and appears to be having “withdrawal symptoms from percoset”.

Curtis, or User #1424792 lives in Dayton, loves mini pecan tarts, bubble puzzles, was in the marines, purchases supplies for the Lane Metropolitan Community Church in Cleveland. I wish him luck on the new bathroom vanity he’s working on and replacing the damaged floppy drive.  That might also explain why he’s been searching for toilet icons.
Who owns my search requests?  Does AOL, Google or anyone have the right to keep this information for over three months? 
Does keeping this data compromise our privacy?  You bet your ass!  Even using an anonymizer service won’t protect you. Do I want anyone to have access to this data?  Hell NO!

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Blogger cel said...

Does AOL being an ISP make a difference on the identity issue?

How would or does google and yahoo get our names, addresses or is it a ID related to the individual computer?

I hope they fire the imbecile at AOL that made that mistake. Wish there were legal ways to give him a few months behind bars but the EULA probably protects AOL.

5:15 PM  
Blogger BillP said...


Well, AOL being the ISP makes it a no-brainer if they wanted to connect a user with their searches. Same would be true on MSN but nobody is really safe.

While Google may only have my ID address when I search, I do have a Google video/adsense accounts so they could cross reference me if they really wanted. Same is true with Yahoo since I do have a Yahoo account an cookie on my system.

The real surprise for me was that I could actually identify someone without knowing anymore than what they searched on for three months.

5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We discuss AOL users at

For example, here is a list of already identified users.

5:23 PM  

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