AOL Releases Tons of Personal Search Data

Posted on August 7, 2006

What are they thinking at AOL corporate headquarters? Over the weekend AOL placed an enormous amount of private customer search history onto the Internet. Customer search records for 650,000 customers from the last three months were released onto the Internet. A total of 20 million search queries were released. This was a huge free gift for marketers and spammers but a big slap in the face to AOL customers. AOL usernames were replaced with a number but some of this information might be able to be tracked back to a real person who made the searches. For example, people often search their own names in search engines. Elliot Black shows that a huge amount of social security numbers were included in the AOL data. Some more examples of the search keywords and phrases that could cause privacy problems can be found here.

People should not enter their social security numbers into search engines but AOL also should not be releasing information to the public that contains them. People also search for career, financial, health and relationship information online that they want kept private. This is a great way to get people to fear using the Internet and search engines. AOL's poorly conceived public data release also comes during a time period when many services are launching where privacy is a huge concern -- online word processors and spreadsheets, desktop search engines, instant messenger software, web-based email, etc. AOL's reckless behavior could make people less likely to use these kinds of services.

Update: Reuters reports that AOL has admitted the enormous data release was a screw-up.

"This was a screw up, and we're angry and upset about it," Andrew Weinstein, an AOL spokesman said. "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."
Unfortunately, since the data was released mirror sites have popped up and the file has been download countless times. It is now impossible to make this customer search data private again.

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