It is not that hard to identity actual users from the “anonymous” search data released by AOL. The New York Times quickly found user No. 4417749:
No. 4417749 conducted hundreds of searches over a three-month period on topics ranging from “numb fingers” to “60 single men” to “dog that urinates on everything.”
And search by search, click by click, the identity of AOL user No. 4417749 became easier to discern. There are queries for “landscapers in Lilburn, Ga,” several people with the last name Arnold and “homes sold in shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia.”
It did not take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her friends’ medical ailments and loves her three dogs. “Those are my searches,” she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her.
Andwho probably hope they won’t be found out:
6426084 is a definite fan of pitbull dogs. And pitbull fighting. Looks like he wants to register a pitbull dog now, too. Other than that, 6426084 likes to search for “gangbuses” and “gangboats”.
We got a power searcher here. 8268 makes frequent use of the minus search operator, and is interested in anything from aerospace technology to Thai food, from the Windows Multimedia Knowledgecenter to the Alias season finale.
29665 is one of the more innocent searchers, looking for Johnny Cash, the Middle East, and pictures of famous psychologists. 29665 also wants to know how to save the rainforest.
It’s after midnight. 19655 is looking for “dirty jokes for Christians”. Later, 19655 clarifies; “clean dirty jokes” is what he’s after. Finally, 19655 decides to settle for “inspiring bible quotes”.
In another search, 19655 reveals a full name, including when and where that person went to University, and other names of that family (as well as their jobs).
Like many other AOL users, 3286034 got hit with a phishing mail addressed to him (“dear [full name]…”), and he pasted it into the search box to check on it. This reveals his full name, which can then be connected to all the other searches he did over the course of three months.
1045042 is researching the relationship between Republicans and terrorism.
The life of 24868 circles around pottery barns, HTML, MySpace (one of AOL users’ favorites), camping, limos, bedroom furniture and hair extension tools.
11829 is also into dogs (bulldogs), though not quite as obsessed as 6426084 above. Who knows why 11829 looked up red roofs, palm trees, kibbutz houses and chicken houses… or “little Arabian boys.” Wait… March 7, several search for “dog porn”. OK, maybe 11829 is obsessed with dogs. Searches for “submit pictures of dogs online” follow. (Is 11829 producing dog porn?) Other searches reveal what might be 11829’s home town. A couple of more regular searches, like “hairy chests”, “fake hairy chests” and “the theme from jurassic park” round up the day.
We got a horse guy here. 20320’s searches circle around saddlery, horse racing, and jockeys. Other searches reveal 20320’s hometown, the age of 20320’s children, and the summer camp they’re going to. A search on May 18 is compiling facts on a “fast divorce”.
User 22817 seems to look up every word in a dictionary. 22817’s quest starts on March 12, 5 PM:
what does acute mean
what does accompany mean
what does adrenaline mean
what does alternative mean
what does acute mean
what does ample mean
what does abundant mean
what does ambition mean
what does ambiguous mean
what does agony mean
what does achieve mean
what does apprehend mean
what does annoy mean
what does aggravate mean
22817’s gives up after just two hours. A while later, 22817 searches for “summer activities”. Maybe there’s something more interesting to do?
At 10:08 PM, 28963 looks for “porn sites”. 28963 quickly amends the search query to read “freee porn sites”. (Two days later, 28963 shows a sudden interest in genital warts.)
Hip Hop fan 29076 likes AntiStudy.com. His searches include “disney chanal”, “emty lots”, “michael jordon timeline” and “goolge”.
1133 is looking for “Google grass”. (What’s Google grass?)
2761 wants to acquire a box of lobster tails. Might come in handy for the trip to Amsterdam…