Your search history is all they need

… apparently, to track you down.

In 2006, the New York Times tracked down a woman in Georgia using only her search history. AOL, as part of a research project, had placed online a 3-month search history for 650,000 users without user names or any other identifiable information – or so they thought:

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.

William Safire

William Safire, the former Nixon speechwriter famous for providing Vice President Spiro Agnew with gems such as ‘hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history’, died yesterday. I looked forward to his NYT column “On Language“, links to whose posts I shared on several occasions with friends over email.

If you must read anything by Safire, let it be his last Op-Ed column “How to Read a Column” for the NYT in 2005, full of self-directed jibes:

7. Watch for repayment of favors. Stewart Alsop jocularly advised a novice columnist: “Never compromise your journalistic integrity – except for a revealing anecdote.” Example: a Nixon speechwriter told columnists that the president, at Camp David, boasted “I just shot 120,” to which Henry Kissinger said brightly “Your golf game is improving, Mr. President,” causing Nixon to growl “I was bowling, Henry.” After columnists gobbled that up, the manipulative writer collected in the coin of friendlier treatment.