Take Action: AOL, Privacy and the Database of Intentions

by Devanshu Mehta

AOL's Data Leak: Were You Exposed?

“AOL has put our privacy at risk by publicly disclosing the recent search history”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/16/AR2006081601751.html of 650,000 users. This wrong in so many different ways- and yes, your search queries say a lot about you, including your identity. The “New York Times discovered just who AOL Searcher #4417749”:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/09/technology/09aol.html?ex=1312776000&en=f6f61949c6da4d38&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss was just using their search strings.

Then, “Slate had this fantastic article”:http://www.slate.com/id/2147590/?nav=tap3 analyzing the data AOL put out called “The Seven Ways That People Search the Web”. While this truly demonstrates the idea of a _database of intentions_ theorized by”John Battelle”:http://battellemedia.com, we surely do not want this database open for public consumption. In fact, there should be privacy laws in place that require companies like AOL to delete such information after a set amount of time.

The Wall Street Journal has a great debate between EFF lawyer Kevin Bankston and lobbyist Markham C. Erickson on the issues of privacy in search. From that debate, Bankston says:

…strongly opposes proposals by the DOJ and Congresswoman DeGette that would force companies to store this kind of sensitive data for government use. That’s like asking the post office to keep copies of our mail, or phone companies to keep recordings of our phone calls, just in case investigators might find it useful. The bottom line is that Americans deserve the same privacy protections online that they’ve always had offline, and that includes the ability to be able to speak and consume speech freely and privately, without fear that their deepest secrets might be shared with the government or published to the world. Yet when search engines accumulate this kind of data, such disclosures are bound to happen, as this week’s news has demonstrated.

Erickson, on the other hand, has good intentions but falls back on the old “free market” defense:

The U.S. Internet industry has led the world in innovation precisely because it has been more adaptive to users’ expectations and demands than competitors in any other country. The answer is not to saddle this industry with a law that requires a government bureaucrat to review and decide what information policies constitute a “legitimate business purpose.”

After which he goes on to talk about how data retention limitations will stifle innovation on the Internet.

Here are a few more pointers on the AOL story and how to keep yourself on top of things:

* Find out how to “keep your search history private”:http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/archives/004868.php but understand that the only way to ensure 100% privacy is to not use search engines.
* Understand that if you log in to your search engine (i.e. your Yahoo! account if you use Yahoo search or your GMail account if you use Google), you have helped them link your search results to a lot of other personal information.
* Use “CustomizeGoogle”:http://www.customizegoogle.com Firefox extension. Its privacy options anonymize your cookie, removes the tracking from your clicks and blocks Google Analytics (which is a site usage statistics tools that many sites, including this one, use).
* “Spread the word”:http://www.eff.org/Privacy/AOL/spreadtheword.php about this debacle.
* “Contact AOL”:https://secure.eff.org/site/Advocacy?alertId=243&rid=other.281&pg=logACall to find out if your information was released, to voice your concerns and if you are a paying customer on any of their properties mention that they may lose your business. It must hurt them financially for this to be resolved without government intervention. AOL’s phone number is +1-703-265-1000 and hit 0 for a human being. If you do contact them, “let EFF know how it went”:https://secure.eff.org/site/Advocacy?alertId=243&rid=other.281&pg=logACall
* “Spread the word and get buttons for your blog”:http://www.eff.org/Privacy/AOL/spreadtheword.php now.