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Internet Privacy

The recent fiasco with AOL has the net buzzing about the privacy of your data and actions on the internet. The “What have you searched for?” is a tricky question, as a single search engine query is meaningless – but complete phychological (and even personal) profiles could be build from a set of searches identified to have been made by the same user.

Examining the AOL’s “privacy policy“, some key points come up:

Your AOL Network information consists of personally identifiable information collected or received about you when you interact with the AOL Network’s Web sites, services and offerings as a registered user.

Including:

  • information about your visits to AOL Network Web sites and pages
  • information about the searches you perform through the AOL Network and how you use the results of those searches
  • information about the AOL Network services or offerings that you use
  • information about how long you have used services from AOL, Inc. prior to registering with the Network
  • transaction-related information (such as credit card or other preferred means of payment, billing or shipping information, or a history of products purchased through the AOL Network)

And

Your AOL Network information may be supplemented with additional information from other companies.

Along with all the technical information such as your browser, OS, ISP, etc. Basically at this point they have a pretty good idea of who you are, and what you are up to. Now on to the cool part – what do they do with all of that information? The points of note are:

  • to conduct research about your use of the AOL Network
  • Your AOL Network information may be shared with the Network’s affiliated providers.
  • In the event that ownership … transfer to another company, your AOL Network information may be transferred.

The first point is of the greatest importance. Under the banner of ‘research data’, three months worth of search history of 500,000 users has been publically released, until a week later it was realized that masking usernames with unique numbers was a bad idea, and it was later taken down.

Though a week is more than enough to have such “interesting” data mirrored and reposted. A number of sites have poped up, providing a searchable web interface, so that everybody can enjoy murder plots and more inappropriate search terms than an R rated movie would allow for.

Ultimately all search engines monitor and log your activities (it helps with the advertisments), though it does bring up the question of just how much of your personal profile is put together, and who has access to that? Both Google and Yahoo! provide email and IM services, not just search engines. We entrust big corporations with major parts of our lives on the digital plane and, as this AOL example shows, we need to exercise a certain level of caution in order to protect ourselves.

What’s in your TOS?

–Tony

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