MANY AMERICANS WOULDN'T be able to use the Internet without the virtual road map provided by search engines such as Google and Yahoo. As they use those sites, though, each inquiry discloses something personal that they might not want to share. Something embarrassing, or worse, something misleading.
AOL, the nation's biggest supplier of Internet access, made clear just how sensitive those inquiries can be earlier this month. Hoping to aid software developers, the company released logs of about 20 million searches made by 658,000 subscribers from March to May. Although numerical IDs were used in place of names, the queries often provided clues to the user's identity, interests and state of mind.
Many of the entries were relatively innocuous, revealing little more than a user's line of work, love of animals or interest in soap-opera stars. Other queries, however, disclosed Social Security numbers and other personally identifying information. And some pursued more salacious or alarming topics, such as pornography, incest, revenge, murder or suicide.
The search records were available online for about a week before a few bloggers stumbled over them, triggering an outcry about privacy. AOL responded by yanking the records from its site, but by then it was too late -- others on the Web were already making the records available to all comers. On Monday, the company apologized, saying the original release was unauthorized and contrary to its policies.