User 927’s Disturbing Search History

Season 20 of South Park featured a storyline where the people of the world were thrown into a state of mass panic over the threat of their internet search histories being made public. In the show, the plot was pulled together by Denmark as a campaign to end internet trolling once and for all, even at the cost of privacy. So, South Park of course naturally took a comedic jab at the concept, but there’s no denying that in 2018, the idea of our search histories being made public has become a genuine societal fear, and probably something that would subsequently end in chaos for millions of people. Most probably wouldn’t expect such a thing to ever actually happen, excluding extreme cases involving things like hackers, but this actually has happened in the past and on a large scale, even I’m not referring to instances where companies sell your information to each other, I’m talking about having an actual log of things that you typed into search engines being posted on a public website for everyone to see. So. Who exactly was the culprit behind this massive information leak and privacy breach? AOL. Now for anyone in the audience who doesn’t know what AOL is for some reason or if you’re too young, just think of it as Google, Pre-Google. Anyways, so what happened was on August 4th, 2006 AOL decided for some reason that it would be a good idea to release a file containing over 20 million keywords collected from roughly 650 thousand of its users over a 3 month period. Just 3 days later the file was deleted but given how the internet works by then the data had already been mirrored and immortalised on other sites, and can still be referenced today without much effort at all. Now, why did AOL think this was a swell idea that definitely would not lead to massive backlash? According to articles I found on the issue, they claim it was for research purposes, and no that doesn’t make any sense to me either, but since I don’t want a conspiracy theory channel, I’ll let you guys debate the motivation in the comments. From what I could find the data was supposedly meant for a select few but was somehow sent public, it’s a whole thing. Anyway, since this was for *cough cough* “research”, AOL did try to at least mask any identifying information before publishing the data. How did they do this? By replacing their usernames with numbers, and that’s it. As you can imagine, this helped shield the identities of most of the 650 thousand users, but not all of them. Many of the user’s search histories contained keywords that gave away personal information. Now how did that happen? Think about the times you search for restaurants, or businesses, in your area (?) Over enough entries it wouldn’t be hard for someone to assume you live near everything you search for and probably frequent those locations. It’s not 100%, but it is obviously still concerning I mean, most people have no idea that their Google accounts have actual maps showing where they’ve been, but that’s a topic for another time An AOL user dubbed 4417749 is a great example of what I’m talking about in regards to this AOL stuff. Now this person’s leaked data showed searches for things like landscapers in Georgia, dog that urinates on everything, numb fingers, Homes sold in like subdivision when it counted Georgia, and a number of people with the last name ‘Arnold’. Based on this information alone, the New York Times was actually able to locate this user and identify her as 62 year old Thelma Arnold, a widow from Lilburn, Georgia. She consented to have her identity revealed by the New York Times in an article, where she can be quoted as saying “My goodness, it’s my whole personal life, I had no idea someone was looking over my shoulder”. Thelma’s other searches included inquiries for travel advice, how to donate to charity and the safest places to live, amongst other things. Naturally though, out of the 650 thousand users who had their data leaked, not all of their search histories were as benign. User Number 2708 for example, searched for such things as revenge tactics, voice changer, help with revenge and how to humiliate someone. Sprinkled in between these were searches for music and books. User 3067593’s searches illustrated a particularly heartbreaking narrative, with inquiries for signs of miscarriage, pregnancy complications pregnancy with twins, pregnancy danger signs, stress, relationship trouble, signs divorce is on it’s way how to avoid divorce, chatrooms for lonely married people, dad and miscarriage, and how to know if your marriage is over. Out of all the users affected by the data leak however, there was one in particular that stood out and sparked the most discussions from people online, and that of course was User 927. The records for 927’s search history begin on March 1st of 2006, with searches for basic things like Yoko Ono, All American Rejects, Green Day, et cetera. The final search for that day was ‘heal time for broken legs’. On March 3rd we get several searches for ‘human mold’, then searches for ‘dog sex’ The next several entries are for flowers of different kinds, and then we see an abrupt turn to inquiries for inquiries to ‘rape porn’. Over the next 2 months the bizarre set of searches continue with things like ‘4 month old ultrasound of a girl’ , genital names, corpse bride, farmboys, bestiality, ‘anime gravitation’, paper doll maker, child incest, ‘J. Edgar Hoover sex life’, appendicitis, hentai incest, pee fetish, incest rape, chlamydia, sexual torture, electric sex torture hardcore rape, free porn, child hentai, baby names, ‘child molestation and rape porn’, ‘japanese child slave molestation’ and rape porn, virtual children. One thing I did wanna point out is the clear mental progression as you make your way through the list. At first the searches are definitely disturbing but by the end we have genuine attempts at locating material that involves harming actual children. Keep in mind, what I read to you isn’t the complete list and took place over a period of 3 months. In between these disturbing searches were more mundane things like TV shows, hairstyles and tutorials. Because of this, people have theorised that perhaps 927 isn’t a single person, that maybe the more innocent searches were done by family since in 2006, people were much more likely to share a desktop or laptop with people they lived with, instead of everyone having their own devices. Who User 927 is exactly, is unknown. Amongst the inquiries, the only possible identifying information that could be gathered under the account were searches for news sites in Colorado, but that unfortunately doesn’t give us a whole lot to work from. Where things get tricky is that of course User 927 wasn’t the only one with a disturbing search history. There are others, such as User 6048640 who attempted to search for child brides, 12 year old brides and sexy 12 and 13 year olds. User No. 6416389 searched for things like ‘feasting on thighs of young girls’, ‘girls strangled and eaten’, ‘girls cut up into steaks’, and ‘cannibals feasting on buttocks of young girls’. Some users even search for things along the lines of ‘how to kill my wife’ or ‘how to get away with murder’. Of course, questions concerning what to do with users with suspicious search histories has come up, and is a debate that seems like it isn’t going to die down anytime soon. Now, just to clarify, when I say ‘suspicious’ I mean just that. Suspicious but not outright illegal like some things found in 927’s and other’s search histories. Now for example, there were a lot of keywords within the leaked data about illegal drugs. Whether or not these were entries from people genuinely looking to break a law or students doing a research paper is unclear. Despite this, though there is of course reason for people to be suspicious. Just a few years ago a user on left a string of disturbing reviews on items that would imply that he was killing people. One review was for a folding shovel and it read: ‘Keep in car for when you have to hide bodies and you left the full shovel at home’. Another review is for a chainsaw: ‘Works excellent… getting the neighbour to stand still while you chase him with it is hard enough without having an easy to use chainsaw’. The final review is for a padlock; the user described them as solid and claimed to have 5 of them on a shipping container that quote: ‘won’t stop them, but sure will slow them down til they are too old to care’. So of course, in most cases posts like these are seen as jokes, or trolls, but in this case the man behind them turned out to be Todd Kohlhepp, a serial killer who was caught after the police were able to track down one of his victims who was still alive and locked in a shipping container. He wasn’t joking in his reviews. In the aftermath of the 2006 AOL search data leak- the company was sued and also announced the resignation of their chief technology officer. They also naturally received backlash from digital rights groups, privacy advocates and the American public. The main question, of course, to come from this whole situation was how much privacy and anonymity to people actually have rights to when it comes to the internet. Obviously, it’s still a debate that goes on to this day, and is not going to go away anytime soon. It only gets more complicated as new technology emerges. The internet is, by nature, a complicated place. On one hand, people are now more connected than ever, to each other, to resources, to information leading to new and exciting opportunities we never had before it existed. But, the internet is a double edged sword, and the same opportunities exist for everyone, including those looking to abuse them. 🙂

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