August 8, 2006

AOL’s huge data blunder

by Brian Turner

Computers & Internet


AOL have released a big chunk of user data to the internet in a huge blunder.

The data was a record of 20 million searches on the AOL search engine, carried out by 650,000 AOL users over March to May of this year.

The data was provided in the form of a 400+ MB zipped file, which showed AOL user IDs and the searches each user carried out over that period.

Although AOL later pulled the data from the internet, by then the damage had been done – nerds around the world had already copied the data to their servers to ensure it remained in the public domain.

The public publishing of the data is not simply embarrassing for AOL in terms of user privacy – it is also exactly the sort of data that the US government had taken ISP’s such as MSN, Yahoo!, and Google to court over in order to access.

AOL has now published an apology admitting their “screw-up”, and revealed that the data only covers around 0.3% of searches made by AOL users in that period.

However, despite assurances that no directly personally identifiable data was released, the amount of detail revealed about users life is startling.

Insomnia blog went through some of the data and published a mixture of search records that moved between the endearing and the frightening.

Also, as Techcrunch points out:

The most serious problem is the fact that many people often search on their own name, or those of their friends and family, to see what information is available about them on the net. 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. The possibilities are endless.

The blog Plenty Of Fish helps underline this by pointing out search queries that suggest someone may have been thinking of killing their wife.

Some existing AOL users are so concerned about the data release that they are calling for a boycott of AOL – something that comes on the back of extensive bad publicity over AOL users unable to cancel accounts.

Meanwhile members of US rights and liberties groups are underlining the extensive breach of privacy in this deliberate release of user data.

The data is also a massive catch for search marketers, who previous had to use a mixture of luck and guesswork and persistent hard work to generate any kind of real data on actual search data from a major ISP – and now they have it in nines.

One enterprising webmaster has already imported the data into a SQL database that can be easily searched.

The size and scale of this event is unprecented, and the ramifications for AOL are damaging in every regard.

We can only wonder what Google – who bought a 5% share in AOL last December – can be wondering.

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4 Responses to “AOL’s huge data blunder”

  1. Platinax News » AOL sacks staff of data leak on August 23rd, 2006 12:21 pm

    [...] AOL has sacked its chief technology officer and two other employees responsible for publishing user data online. [...]

  2. Platinax Small Business News » AOl sued for search privacy violations on September 27th, 2006 1:15 pm

    [...] AOL is being served with a class action lawsuit in America, after the company released user data online that allowed users of the AOL search engine to be traced. [...]

  3. Google cookie cut unlikely to satisfy privacy concerns on July 16th, 2007 11:40 pm

    [...] extent of how personally revealing this data could be came to light last August when AOL released what they believed to be anonymous user data, only for researchers to be able to use this to track down individuals from their recorded [...]

  4. Google sidetracks on privacy on May 19th, 2011 3:11 pm

    [...] However, AOL proved this belief to be completely false when it released search data back in 2006. [...]

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