America Online chief technology officer Maureen Govern has resigned amid the controversy over the company's making customer search records public.

"This incident took place because some employees did not exercise good judgment or review their proposal with our privacy team," said CEO Jonathan Miller in an in-house email. "We are taking appropriate action with the employees who were responsible."

I haven't been following this issue and I'm not sure what the problem is, in general, with putting anonymous search terms up in a public forum. Back in the 20th century there was a cool Java applet that claimed to be a real-time ticker of all the search terms people were entering into AltaVista at any given time. It was pretty mesmerizing, and there was a brief vogue for trying to type in AltaVista searches really quickly and then try to catch them on the ticker. (Ah, life was simpler back then!)

The issue here was that apparently people with some skills could find out unique numbers for each searcher, and triangulate to try and get an actual identity. "At least two of the AOL users have been identified by name in press accounts," The New York Times says, "and people have speculated about the identities of others on various Web sites." Do some of your own searching of the AOL database at

Except for Abdur Chowdhury's technical gaffe, however, is there any problem with anonymously making search terms public? My inclination is that there's not, but maybe I'm just too enamored of Golden-age-of-the-internet catchphrases. Maybe I could be quickly cross-indexed as the only sucka out there who's suspiciously interested in horrible sports injuries, Joseph Hergesheimer, and the Van Allen Belts who's also trying to sell a good-condition Kenmore washing machine on Craigslist. (The thing's a beaut! Must go!) Then again, maybe there are others. I'm a one-in-a-million guy, and that means there are a thousand guys in China just like me.

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  1. “Thaven’t been following this issue and I’m not sure what the problem is, in general, with putting anonymous search terms up in a public forum.”

    Because some of the searches include names of people. Considering how many people “ego-surf” or look up people they know, it’s not all that anonymous.

  2. You are right, that altavista ticker was mesmerizing. The juxtaposition of “14th century peruvian philosopher” in the middle of a sea of “anal teens” was fascinating.

  3. 1300 like you in China may be more accurate.

  4. The more interesting question is why no search engine is yet exploiting this untapped demand.

    Let’s assume Google, AOL and Yahoo! all preserve their search traffic data indefinitely. Now assume that Yahoo! changes its policies to wipe its data after one year — and advertises that fact prominently.

    Which am I more likely, all else equal, to use?

    Demand usually creates its own supply. There is no reason to think it won’t here, sooner or later.

  5. Kip, unfortunately the government would probably step in and make them archive search terms for an arbitrarily long time in order to fight child pr0n, or terrorism, or drugs, or smoking, or some other scary term du jour.

  6. Back in the 20th century there was a cool Java applet that claimed to be a real-time ticker of all the search terms people were entering into AltaVista at any given time.

    There’s one still running here:

  7. Ahh, the altavista ticker…

    I used to periodically type


    about once a day …it was like a message I’d send to myself. My friends would mention it if they saw it on the ticker.

    It stemmed from a joke I used to make about the internet, where you could type ‘www.[anything].com’ and get some reasonable approximation of what you thought it would be…

    I used to tell people to check out ‘satan rape’.com, as though it were the apex/nadir (depending on how you think) of all things vulgar and pornographic.

    People would ask, ‘is it about satan raping people, or people raping satan?’… the answer of course being, ‘both, duh’.

    These days if I type “homogenous” into Google I get into trouble with our porn filter. Really.


  8. Resigning from AOL is just deserting the sinking ship before the next round of layoffs.

  9. Amazing how many people type a complete URL into a search box.


    nuff said.
    Last night was the first I heard about this, and I perused through these…I can honestly say now that I hate humanity.

  11. Absentee ballots are supposed to be “anonymous” as well. Since I have to travel from time to time for work, I tend to use them. I know damn well that Margaret, our town clerk, knows which one is mine (by the voting pattern… and especially the write-ins 8^).

    That being said, I wouldn’t want her pinning it up on the town bulletin board.


  12. Well, the secrecy of my voting record is something I’ve never been very concerned about, so I can’t even say I’d mind if somebody posted it on the town bulletin board.

  13. In small(ish) town politics, things can get pretty dicey, Tim. There is, after all, a reason secret ballots are, um, secret.

    (I have reason to trust our Town Clerk and her office; still, I’d likely think twice about using an absentee ballot for the election she’s running in, or abstain on that office – friends/colleagues of mine, Margaret included, have faced one another as opponents on that column several times already. These are people I have to live and work around. There’s a calculated risk with that paper absentee ballot, but I suspect folks – myself included – would absolutely shit if the set of their machine choices were made available… and these are selections over a relatively small space of ballot options, NOT the space of free-form ‘net search queries limited to 255 or whatever characters, and likely to be far more user-specific!)

    Private entities should, of course, be free to set whatever policies they see fit in terms of use of their facilities. That being said, if they say (or imply) they’ll do one thing WRT privacy then turn around and do another… tar and feathers, anyone?

    With due respect, Tim, your line of reasoning smells a bit like “if you’re ‘innocent’ (whatever that may mean), you have nothing to fear.”


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