Portrait of the surfer as a fat man

Do you know this man?

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. The same user, 710794, is interested in the Cherokee County School District in Canton, Ga., and has looked up the Suwanee Sports Academy in Suwanee, Ga., which caters to local youth, and the Youth Basketball of America’s Georgia affiliate.

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.

Declan McCullagh gives a series of portraits of AOL users from an unsanctioned but not inadvertent file of the search activities of about 650,000 AOL users over three months. Most of them he picks out are far more disturbing and unsavory.

Although AOL did not corporately sanction the publication of this data, it was done deliberately in the interest of research. And although AOL yanked the data from the net, it was mirrored and is still as of the moment I write this accessible with its own search facility on a mirrored site.

Although this huge violation of user privacy is not the product of data retention policies, it’s doubtless that the data retention being implemented in the EU and soon in Canada will result in more and more incidents that represent breaches of privacy in this space. With requirements to retain 90 days of all user data, the EU policy creates an “attractive nuisance,” like laying bait for identity thieves, blackmailers, and other unsavory sorts — in the name of assisting EU authorities in tracing cybercrime.

It will be interesting to see how many portraits such as those Declan extracted will start to crop up from hackers “exploring” the data stores of the EU.

40 Comments

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