August 7th, 2006

Lawyers, Priests, and AOL’s Data Release

by

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment (along with the rest of universe) on AOL’s apparently accidental release of 20 million+ searches by 500,000 AOL users. Markus over at The Paradigm Shift has some horrifying data on homicidal and suicidal intentions mixed in with all the research and buying intentions:

This is the very data that google won a legal battle to keep from the government. What is going to happen to the search industry now? What are peoples privacy rights? If people are using AOL to search for ways of killing their spouse what should be done about it?

After reading AOL’s press release, it seems that they are just as horrified as everyone else. What’s clear is that information submitted to a search engine is as sensitive as the information given to lawyers and priests. In the case of lawyers, there are laws that protect the confedentiality of the information. In the case of priests, there are “higher” laws. But the law governing search data, online clickstreams, etc. is in its infancy — no, it hasn’t even been conceived yet.

Clearly, our societal and legal infrastructure is not prepared to deal with the human mirror of the Internet.

We need public debates. We need Congressional hearings. And, unfortunately, we probably need legislation.

I’m inclined to say that everyone who has posted copies of the data after it was taken down is acting in a socially irresponsible manner — but I know the complexity of the situation far exceeds gut feelings.

Here’s the bottom line: what’s inside our minds is no longer private (or a lot less private). Nothing we do on the Internet is private. And there is a not insignificant risk that if we don’t come to terms with this as a society, there will be many unintended consequences — and it won’t be pretty.

  • Michal, indeed I was referring to legislation governing companies' handling of use data.

    Seth, you're right that we shouldn't be alarmist, and you're probably right in your interpretation of this particular example. But it's entirely plausible that hard evidence of homicidal or suicidal exists in search data.

  • There is nothing unfortunate about legislation in the public interest. Perhaps, what is unfortunate is that so many Internet users somehow think that having laws governing behaviour on the Internet is somehow undesirable.

    Governing behavior on the Internet? I thought Scott meant legislation to govern or punish AOL's bungled stewardship of sensitive personal data.

  • Simon

    Comments on two points you make:

    1. "And, unfortunately, we probably need legislation."
    Why unfortunate? It is unfortunate that we have laws against killing other people, or against stealing property? There is nothing unfortunate about legislation in the public interest. Perhaps, what is unfortunate is that so many Internet users somehow think that having laws governing behaviour on the Internet is somehow undesirable.

    2. "... what’s inside our minds is no longer private (or a lot less private)."
    No. What is in your mind is private. What isn't private is what you do on public websites that keep logs. But then who ever really thought that actions on the public Internet were private. I mean, come on, really--if you don't want anyone to know your thoughts don't communicate them! This isn't something we have to come to terms with as a society--this is something we have always known.

  • My first thought would be that someone was looking for information about the crime case where part of the evidence against the defendant was Google searches he did. It was a fairly well-publicized case, so I'd think it more likely someone was trying to find it, than that he was planning a murder of his own. It strikes me as extremely alarmist to be infering someone wants to commit murder from a search about murder. There's plenty of mystery and true-crime fans, while murderers are rather rare. The rest of the search trail indicates the user was probably doing some sort of mystery/crime search (e.g. "pictures of dead people", NOT poisons/weapons).

  • Seth -- really, how would you parse "how to kill your wife"?

    Tony -- I think we're going to need a more perverse metaphor than "skeletons in the closet" to describe this situation -- the bodies come to life and tell all.

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