The Utter Stupidity of AOL is Staggering

OK, that is not news, but I am paraphrasing Techcrunch‘s coverage of the AOL Research data release.

For a while, AOL research put data on 20 million web searches by 650000 of their subscribers up for download. The link was fairly quickly taken down, but once information is released it is very hard to take it back. I am sure you can find a mirror or torrent if you look.

Because is it data on a selection of logged in AOL users, it contains a continuous record of their searches over time (March to May 2006). Because you have a record of searches over a period of time, you can start to make some assumptions about the user or the household and depending on the information the user has searched for you can sometimes identify them.

Most Many commenters on Digg don’t seem to see it as a problem, but then maybe their search history does not make it look like they are searching for information on their family tree, information for English teachers in a conservative US state, the website of a local church, chamber of commerce, and rotary chapter in the same state in between searching for MySpace, cheerleaders, preteen sex and strap on sex toys. AOL has kindly replaced these people’s screenname with a sequential integer but I am guessing if you went to that church, Chamber of Commerce, or Rotary chapter you would be able to pick an English teacher with that surname.

Maybe he made all those searches and deserves to be found out. Maybe he shares one internet connection with his son. Maybe his nextdoor neighbour steals his WiFi. In any case, I expect that the free AOL CD he picked up a while ago might have suddenly become pretty expensive.


George Schlossnagle, Laura Thomson, Luke Welling, Theo Schlossnagle, Chris Shiflett signing books at OSCON06.  Photo by Mark Taber.

George Schlossnagle, Laura Thomson, Luke Welling, Theo Schlossnagle, Chris Shiflett signing books at OSCON06. Photo by Mark Taber.

OSCON is my favourite conference. I really like the way it brings people passionate about a whole range of things together. Sometimes of course, they choose to concentrate on their differences, but for the most part somebody who is interested in one technology is more likely than average to be interested in others, and likely to have a great deal in common. Contrary to popular opinion, PHP does not officially stand for “People Hate Perl“.

Remind me next year that at the end of every OSCON I always wish I had spent more time outside the PHP track.

Highlights included
Rasmus, demonstrating how his name became a verb (and profiling a PHP app with Valgrind).
Terry Chay‘s ongoing struggles with Tourette’s syndrome.
Zak Greant‘s lightning talk on how PHP is saving the world a variety of unusual ways. (Hopefully he will write it up as a blog post or similar)
Cal EvansPHP’s Most Wanted cards, which you can download if you want your own set.