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Search and destroy

August 10, 2006

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.

AOL may have failed its customers, but it did the rest of us a favor by showing the kind of information that search sites collect. Like AOL, spokesmen for Google and Yahoo say records are kept for "as long as it's useful." In some cases, the information is associated with a specific individual -- for example, a Yahoo or Google account holder. In other cases, it's linked to an Internet address, which can be traced (with some effort) to a particular Internet access account.

The search sites have a legitimate interest in keeping the logs, which help them make it easier for users to find what they're looking for online. But users have just as strong an interest in searching the Web without fear of being watched. That's true not only for people who value their privacy but also for those who don't want their activities online misconstrued. Searching for "Al Qaeda training camps," for example, doesn't mean you want to enroll in one.

The companies say they keep their logs private unless forced by a subpoena or court order to share the data with investigators or lawyers. That's a start, but it would be far more comforting if they had clear data-retention policies limiting how long the information could be linked to individual accounts or Internet addresses. Those policies should also be public so market forces could help shape them. Web users who routinely reveal much about themselves to their credit-card companies and grocery stores may decide not to care about the issue. If they spent a few minutes reading the AOL search data, though, they might reach a different conclusion.

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