I Love Alaska: On the AOL search data scandal

Many will remember August 2006 when US Internet service provider AOL released sensitive user data, including 20 million Web search queries from 650,000 AOL users, on its research website. If not, this article on TechCrunch, written two days after the release, captures some of the surrounding buzz. While the actual user names had been anonimized by AOL, the vast amount of user queries captured during a three-month period, provided more than enough information for analysts of various kinds to run wild with. It took three days for AOL to remove the original file by which time copies existed all over the Web. Privacy advocates had commented on AOL’s rather traditional concept of ‘personally identifiable data’ as the bits and pieces of information in single user queries could easily be ‘mosaiced’ together and in many cases lead to actual identification.

The data released by AOL has not only inspired activists and marketers, but also artists to create works based on users search history. After a 2008 theater play called User 927, 2009 has seen the release of I Love Alaska, a series of minimovies by Lernert Engelberts & Sander Plug, commissioned by the Dutch Submarine Channel. In contrast to the ‘theatrical thriller’ User 927, AOL user 711391 features as the protagonist in a disquieting and sober film that uses only imagery of Alaska and the actual user queries (pronounced by an emotionless computer voice) by date to build an image of three months in the life of a middle-aged woman from Houston, Texas. The creators’ website states: “Her unique style of phrasing combined with her putting her ideas, convictions and obsessions into AOL’s search engine, turn her personal story into a disconcerting novel of sorts.” The complete series can be watched online at minimovies.org.