free html hit counter Is The Database of Intentions Just a Concept? - John Battelle's Search Blog

Is The Database of Intentions Just a Concept?

By - January 04, 2006

Nope. (Thanks, BB).

From the post:

Vast deposits of personal information sit in databases across the internet. Terms used in phone conversations have become the grounds for federal investigation. Reputable organizations like the Catholic Worker, Greenpeace, and the Vegan Community Project, have come under scrutiny by FBI “counterterrorism” agents.

“Data mining” of all that information and communication is at the heart of the furor over the recent disclosure of government snooping. “U.S. President George W. Bush and his aides have said his executive order allowing eavesdropping without warrants was limited to monitoring international phone and e-mail communications linked to people with connections to al-Qaeda. What has not been acknowledged, according to the Times, is that NSA technicians combed large amounts of phone and Internet traffic seeking patterns pointing to terrorism suspects.

“Some officials described the program as a large data mining operation, the Times said, and described it as much larger than the White House has acknowledged.” (Reuters)

Combining a data mining operation with the Patriot Act’s power to access information makes it all too easy for the federal government to violate the Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable search.

And…..the denouement:

It used to be you had to get a warrant to monitor a person or a group of people. Today, it is increasingly easy to monitor ideas. And then track them back to people. Most of us don’t have access to the databases, software, or computing power of the NSA, FBI, and other government agencies. But an individual with access to the internet can still develop a fairly sophisticated profile of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens using free and publicly available resources. Here’s an example.

There are many websites and databases that could be used for this project, but few things tell you as much about a person as the books he chooses to read. Isn’t that why the Patriot Act specifically requires libraries to release information on who’s reading what? For this reason, I chose to focus on the information contained in the popular Amazon wishlists.

Amazon wishlists lets anyone bookmark books for later purchase. By default these lists are public and available to anybody who searches by name. If the wishlist creator specifies a shipping address, someone else can even purchase the book on Amazon and have it shipped directly as a gift. The wishlist creator’s city and state are made public on the wishlist, but the street address remains private. Amazon’s popularity has created a vast database of wishlists. No index of all wishlists is available, but it remains possible to view all wishlists by people of a particular first name. A recent search for people named Mark returned 124,887 publicly viewable wishlists.

For an all inclusive search by name, you could compile a comprehensive list of first names and nicknames from the baby names databases available on the internet. Armed with this list, and by recording the search results for each first name, it is possible for you to retrieve the vast majority of public wishlists on Amazon.

For the purposes of this exercise, only a single name was chosen – a common male name that returned over 260,000 wishlists. I’m not going to divulge what name was actually used. Let’s pretend it was “Edgar,” in honor of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

It goes on from there. Hmmmmmm….

Make sure you scroll down for the Google Maps API mashup of readers of 1984.

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2 thoughts on “Is The Database of Intentions Just a Concept?

  1. StrategyUnit says:

    Why stop at Amazon wishlist?
    LinkedIn/Ryze – Find out about their career and education (I see Batelle’s profile on LinkedIn)
    MySpace – Tons of freely available demographic information for 18-30yr range (Myspace is easiest to mine, but their’s Friendster and Facebook)
    Google/Yahoo/MSN – of course
    Flickr – Find pictures of them, their friends and their interests.

    Let’s not forget Google Earth or A9’s street-level maps for geographic information.

  2. Kendall Willets says:

    I can imagine hundreds of terrorists in secret prisons, kicking themselves for wishing for The South Beach Diet.