A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749

Buried in a list of 20 million Web search queries collected by AOL and recently released on the Internet is user No. 4417749. The number was assigned by the company to protect the searcher’s anonymity, but it was not much of a shield.

No. 4417749 conducted hundreds of searches over a three-month period on topics ranging from “numb fingers” to “60 single men” to “dog that urinates on everything.”

And search by search, click by click, the identity of AOL user No. 4417749 became easier to discern. There are queries for “landscapers in Lilburn, Ga,” several people with the last name Arnold and “homes sold in shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia.”

It did not take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her friends’ medical ailments and loves her three dogs. “Those are my searches,” she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her.

AOL removed the search data from its site over the weekend and apologized for its release, saying it was an unauthorized move by a team that had hoped it would benefit academic researchers.

In the privacy of her four-bedroom home, Ms. Arnold searched for the answers to scores of life’s questions, big and small. How could she buy “school supplies for Iraq children”? What is the “safest place to live”? What is “the best season to visit Italy”?

Is anyone safe on the internet? Is it private?! I don’t think so..

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