Week in review: The seedier side of search

AOL suffers a black eye this week thanks to its search business, but it also gives us an eye full of surfers' bizarre search habits.

AOL suffered a black eye this week thanks to its search business, but it also gave us an eyeful of surfers' bizarre search habits.

AOL apologized for releasing search log data on subscribers that had been intended for use with the company's newly launched research site. The randomly selected data, which focused on 658,000 subscribers and posted 10 days ago, was among the tools made available for use on AOL Research. The Internet giant has since removed the search logs from public view.

"This was a screw-up, and we're angry and upset about it. It was an innocent enough attempt to reach out to the academic community with new research tools, but it was obviously not appropriately vetted, and if it had been, it would have been stopped in an instant," AOL, a unit of Time Warner, said in a statement.

Although AOL had used identification numbers rather than names or user IDs when listing the search logs, that did not quell concerns of privacy advocates, who said that anyone among the 658,000 could easily be identified based on the searches each individual conducted.

The 21 million search queries also have exposed innumerable life stories, ranging from the mundane to the illicit and bizarre.

From that massive list of search terms, for instance, it's possible to guess that AOL user 710794 is an overweight golfer, owner of a 1986 Porsche 944 and 1998 Cadillac SLS, and a fan of the University of Tennessee Volunteers Men's Basketball team. That's pretty normal. What's not is that user 710794 also regularly searches for "lolitas," a term commonly used to describe photographs and videos of minors who are nude or engaged in sexual acts.

Many CNET News.com readers were furious with AOL for the flub, while others didn't see the release as much of a threat to their privacy.

"After a certain point in time that data needs to be scrubbed, unless you like the idea of being able to (be) profiled based upon your internet activities," one reader wrote to the TalkBack forum. "This profiling not only makes Google et al money but can also result in unexpected situations for you."

CNET News.com compiled a series of excerpts from the AOL search logs, with each user's search terms included in chronological order.

The privacy gaffe may breathe new life into a proposal to slap strict rules on what data Internet companies may collect. Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the disclosure demonstrates that new laws are necessary. AOL has apologized for the disclosure.

Markey's proposal is intended to cover far more than search engines. It seeks to import European-style privacy regulations by requiring all Web site operators to delete from their logs personal information, defined as everything from a name and e-mail address to--in some cases--an Internet Protocol address. Violations would be punished by the Federal Trade Commission.

To offer some suggestions about preserving your privacy while using search engines, CNET News.com has prepared a list of frequently asked questions.

Meanwhile, Google users should have faith that their Web searches won't end up being public information like they have at AOL, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

"We have systems in place that won't allow it to happen," Schmidt told reporters Wednesday after a keynote discussion at the Search Engine Strategies conference here. However, during the keynote discussion, Schmidt had hedged a bit, saying, "We are reasonably satisfied...that this kind of thing could not happen at Google," before adding, "Never say never."

Leopard in the ring
Apple Computer gave developers a preview of Leopard--the next version of Mac OS X--as the Worldwide Developers Conference kicked off in San Francisco.

Apple didn't offer a full look at Leopard but instead showed off a top-10 list of new features the operating system is set to sport upon debuting next spring. Among those features is a Time Machine option that automatically backs up files on a Mac. Other features include enhanced videoconferencing options, improved Mail and the inclusion of the Front Row media software and PhotoBooth picture-taking programs that previously have been available only on new Macs. (To see CNET Reviews' first take on the Leopard preview, click here.)

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