My flip flops are the dirtiest things I’ve ever worn continuously. My barefoot lifestyle has left its mark–literally, in the form of a large, foot-shaped print (complete with toes!)–on the shoes from when I slip them on after, say, walking through Boston barefoot or wandering around a party for six hours. But really, it’s not all my fault–I wanted black ones, but they only had white ones, and 5.99-emergency-flipflop-buyers can’t be choosers, I guess.

But that’s not what I’m talking about in the title.

A few days ago, AOL publicly released all of its users’ search data. Yeowch. Everyone immediately jumped on this and sad BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD idea AOL! How dare you violate the privacy of your users in such a careless way, who will trust you again, and OH GOD THOSE POOR PEOPLE! AOL, of course, took it down quickly and started pointing fingers like there’s no tomorrow, and all of the very valid statements above only get stronger in the aftermath of the issue…

Oh yeah, except that “those poor people” part.

Within two days, while still calling AOL foolish and irresponsible, those who were quick enough to download the search data have put it back up online. In several places, in fact.

Wait wait wait wait WAIT. What happened to privacy concerns? Privacy rights? AOL tries to clean up its act, and then YOU guys continue the wrong? And really, I think it’s even worse than AOL did. For example, one of the mirror sites for the data includes the comment “User ### is a perv!” on its front page. How is this any more morally right or even mature than a middle school bully stealing an embarrassing note and reading it to the class? Internet community, are we really no better than this?


The worst part, the part that inspired me to blog about this, is the fact that there is no outrage over this second round of privacy violations. None. In fact, people seem to think it’s completely okay and maybe even CREATIVE to exploit the information. Check THIS out: this writer posts an excerpt on his blog and invites speculation. He even touches on the decency of his action, and then comes to a really sound conclusion…

“It’s doubtful user #### ever intended these queries for publication. But AOL’s decision to make the data available, despite subsequently removing the files, seems to render the issue of privacy moot. The files remain available online at sites like dontdelete.com. Having looked over the entries and found nothing really damning or invasive, I feel comfortable republishing this one user’s queries.”

WHAAAT? Excuse me? Because AOL messed up, it means no one else is responsible and the issue of privacy is moot? That’s like saying everyone can pollute because some guy threw the first gum wrapper. Also, his reassurance that he found “nothing really damning or invasive” is naive and patronizing. How is that different from someone reassuring you that yes, he may have found your crime record and put it online, but it’s okay because he didn’t find any major felonies? What is or is not damning or invasive should be up to the person, and an invader making that judgment call is completely hypocritical.

That isn’t it, though. Look at the reports from Wired. Two very different things happen on the same page. First, “This is a blatant violation of users’ privacy.” Then, further down on the page, “Whoever wrote that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned had clearly never experienced the Internet. For a three-month period, AOL user ####, apparently a resident of the greater Boston area, was searching for little else.”

Bwa? Did we just decide that decency wasn’t worth combing through the searches and finding people with sad lives to make fun of?

So anyway, here’s my request. Reporters, stop using the “there is SO much you can find with this dangerous dangerous data, and to prove it we’re going to give you a bunch of really entertaining examples” excuse to exploit the data. Even if no one in the general public figures out the precise identity of the person, it makes it embarrassing for them, it could get them in trouble with people they are close to, and POSTING THE LINKS on which the mirrors are located just encourages more people to go have fun with people’s privacy. Blogs and news aggregators: please STOP posting the links to the mirrored sites and stop encouraging people to dig up interesting stories. Mirror sites: Take that shit down. Even AOHELL had the decency to.

Summary:

AOL: Put up the data

Blogosphere: Put up the data (in multiple places, after it was taken down), mocked the users in them, wrote up cute little embarrassing reports for some of the data, all while insulting AOL.

Flip-flopping on important stuff like privacy concerns: Priceless.

P.S. What the hell does “whoever wrote that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned…a resident of the greater Boston area was searching for little else” mean ANYWAY?