Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The future transparency of our lives and poisoning the database

Posted by Tom Foremski - August 16, 2006

Anybody who runs a blog or a web site usually peeks at the search terms that visitors input. It's fascinating stuff because sometimes you can find clues to breaking stories or emerging issues/trends.

And looking at the AOL search term database that was recently released, you can see how people use the search box to make statements, as much as ask questions. The AOL search information is fascinating reading because it represents unguarded thoughts and feelings that could not be collected in any other way.

However, I find it hard to belive that AOL believed it was innocently providing the world with behavioral data and protecting users from being identified. Yes, AOL assigned a numeric code to each user accounts search history, rather than user names. But there is plenty of information in the search terms to identify some of the users.

Now, people will be far more guarded in their use of online services. Surely AOL knew that the data could identify some users. Anybody, even the newest of newbies could look at the search data and see how it could be used to identify people. Yet AOL went ahead and released the information.

Maybe some at AOL wanted to warn others that even if a company says it is not collecting identifiable data on its users, it is not true. People ego surf, they Google their dates, they check up on colleagues and ex-lovers online, they search on phone numbers, etc.

The AOL incident has placed Internet users on notice that their lives are transparent, even in unguarded moments, even when searching for something, anything, even when companies say they are not collecting identifiable data.

One response is to be very careful what you search for. Another response is to poison the database, to create a smokescreen, to use aliases/avatars, to make sure that the data collected online contains only a sliver of the real person.

Yes, it is more work, but you can never know how such information could be used in the future. You can never know if the political climate changes, and some people become persecuted for their past search terms.

And this data never goes away. Google, for example, keeps every search term, keeps a copy of every web site it ever indexed--it never throws away a single byte of data it encounters. And others are doing the same thing, and others have to comply with government regulations in keeping data for many years.

Your every click and keystroke online is being collected by many different organisations, and that means that at some point it will be possible to track it all, and identify most of it. Welcome to the future transparency of your life.

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