Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Privacy, Surveillance, and Consumerism

The degree to which surveillance legislation and Internet advertising practices reach into the personal lives of Internet users is illustrated by www.aolstalker.com. These methods of producing, gathering, and disseminating information have rapidly become both pervasive and expensive. This cost is being subsidized by taxpayers and consumers, and the practices responsible for this cost are being propagated by legislators and advertisers at a time when our society lacks equally pervasive cultural idioms with which to meaningfully evaluate the philosophical, anthropological, and practical implications of these practices.

AOLstalker is a database of search queries conducted by AOL users. The information is organized according to which individual AOL users conducted various searches, and was collected between March 1, 2006 and May 31, 2006. Although the database was assembled for advertising purposes, AOLstalker appears to be an entertainment-oriented application of the data, and users of the site are encouraged to judge AOL users based on the humorousness of personal information revealed by the collected search queries.

The research that produced the database was conducted by AOL and Google, and released publicly. Derivative research has been conducted by authors Pass, Chowdhury and Torgeson, published as "A Picture of Search" for The First International Conference on Scalable Information Systems.

I happened upon AOLstalker after receiving a strange error message on MySpace. The error message included the domain name collect.myspace.com, which I did not recognize, and for which I subsequently performed a Google search. I received a result titled "Stalking users who searched for collect myspace com" at 2006-05-29 21:43:43, referencing the page:

www.aolstalker.com/search.php?q=collect.myspace.com

This got me thinking about users who search for their own names, for various facts about their city or neighborhood, their family or friends, their financial institutions... all the personally-identifiable data revealed by user searches. Beyond the voyeuristic appeal of the intimate psychological portraits AOLstalker offers users, the AOLstalker database also represents a serious privacy and security issue. Were malicious coders able to exploit existing social networking systems like MySpace through phishing schemes or system hacks, a similar "live" database could prove just as lucrative to cybercriminals and authoritarians as it has proven to advertisers.

It is my hypothesis that there, in fact, exists somewhere a "live" version of the aolstalker database, which is tied to a bit of malicious code (or possibly even plain text that has been properly formatted) in MySpace. This code, I suspect, is propagated by third parties who trick MySpace users into posting the malicious code online.

Finally, I suspect, that some targets of the "live" MySpace version of AOLstalker have been victimized by users who treated the "live" database as a form of interactive entertainment, possibly accounting for some recent Internet postings about "gang stalking."

If aolstalker is driven by information that was "publicly" available, I think Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment provides a relatively straightforward illustration of why one should feel disconcerted by intelligence applications of similar technology such as the Intellipedia.

If our Democracy is to survive and thrive in peace, we must have ways to engage in meaningful discourse about the surveillance society in all its forms.

1 comment:

max said...

aolpsycho.com is another AOL search database, aimed at discussing weird searches.