TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: AOL Draws Fire After Releasing User Search Data

AOL Draws Fire After Releasing User Search Data

Kenneth Li (
Mon, 07 Aug 2006 18:57:40 -0500

By Kenneth Li

AOL on Monday apologized for releasing information on about 20 million
keyword searches in a move that ignited a firestorm of criticism about
privacy rights on the Internet.

AOL, the online unit of media conglomerate Time Warner Inc., said it
launched an internal investigation into how a research division of the
company mistakenly released the data on its Web site about 10 days

AOL released search information on about 20 million searches done from
its software by about 658,000 anonymous AOL users over a three-month
period, representing about one-third-of-1-percent of searches
conducted over that time.

The disclosure, which AOL said was not cleared through official
channels, came months after Google Inc. won kudos from privacy pundits
for refusing to comply with U.S. government requests for search data
on its users.

"This was a screw up, and we're angry and upset about it," said Andrew
Weinstein, an AOL spokesman. "It was an innocent-enough attempt to
reach out to the academic community with new research tools, but it
was obviously not appropriately vetted, and if it had been, it would
have been stopped in an instant."

Although user information was not disclosed, keyword searches have
included users who search their own names.

The data escaped notice until this weekend, when blogs began linking to
the study. Techcrunch was among the first
blogs to report the data's release.

According to these blogs, which were able to download the file,
searches among some AOL users included one who conducted a series of
searches on "how to kill your wife," "murder photo" and (sic).

Techcrunch said the most serious problem with the disclosure was that
many people search their own names.

"Combine these ego searches with porn queries and you have a serious
embarrassment. Combine them with "buy ecstasy" and you have evidence
of a crime. Combine it with an address, social security number, etc.,
and you have an identity theft waiting to happen," said Techcrunch
blogger Michael Arrington in a posting. "The possibilities are

One legal expert said the disclosure probably did not violate the
company's own privacy policy as the data did not include personally
identifiable information.

"This is more of a business snafu than anything else," Jason Epstein,
head of the business and technology group at law firm Baker, Donelson,
Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC said.

The link to the actual file, containing searches done by users whose
personal IDs are replaced with random numbers, is no longer available
on AOL's Web site.

"Although there was no personally identifiable data linked to these
accounts, we're absolutely not defending this. It was a mistake, and
we apologize," AOL's Weinstein said. "We've launched an internal
investigation into what happened, and we are taking steps to ensure
that this type of thing never happens again."

Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.

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