Buried in a list of 20 million Web searches collected by AOL and recently released on the Internet is user No. 4417749. The number was assigned by the company to protect the searcher's anonymity, but it was not much of a shield.

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."

Search by search, click by click, the identity of AOL user No.4417749 became easier to discern. There are queries for several people with the last name Arnold, for "landscapers in Lilburn," Georgia, and for "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, 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 over the phone.

AOL removed the search data from its site over the weekend and apologized for its release, saying that it was an unauthorized move by a team that had hoped it would benefit academic researchers.

But the detailed records of searches conducted by Arnold and 657,000 other Americans, copies of which continue to circulate online, underscore how much people unintentionally reveal about themselves when they use search engines - and how risky it can be for companies like AOL, Google and Yahoo to compile such data.

Get the full story at the International Herald Tribune