AOL gives away users' Web searches
When Findory.com CEO Greg Linden, an expert in search and personalization technologies, stumbled across a massive cache of AOL user search data on Friday, offered for free by the company's labs, he didn't think of the privacy implications -- he just thought of the great fun he and other researchers could have using the data.
But Caltech student Adam D'Angelo raised the alarm, pointing out that the data, even with user names stripped out, still contained very personal information about what AOL users were looking for on the Web. "This was not a leak -- this was intentional," writes D'Angelo. "In their desperation to gain recognition from the research community, AOL decided they would compromise their integrity." AOL Research rapidly took the data set off its website as the news spread.
"This was a screw up, and we're angry and upset about it," says AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein. "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. We're absolutely not defending this."
It turns out that the disclosure of the research didn't break AOL's latest privacy rules. AOL tells users that it may disclose such information, stripped of user names, for research purposes -- but who knew that "research purposes" included offering that information up for anyone on the Internet to download? As blogger Greg Yardley notes, "Expectations of privacy online are utterly unrealistic and delusional anyway."
Was AOL in its rights to release this data? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.
Was it ethically right? A resounding no.
A quick look at the actual data in question shows:
- Many people search for their own name. (Goodbye anonymity)
- Many people search for their own credit card number to make sure they won't be victim of fraud. (Ironically, by doing so, they've shared their CC# with the world)
- Many people use the internet to get help or locate information on personal issues they would never make public. (Admit it: you've probably done it yourself.)
- Taken out of context, search data can be misleading
- Some of the data is of a personal nature and/or personally identifiable
It's common knowledge among IT pros that AOL customers make up the lowest rung on the tech-savvy totem pole (sorry AOL/TimeWarner/CNN). These are older folks and families "sending internets through a series of tubes." They have virtually no understanding of the implications of search data going public. I bet most AOLers would be horrified if they found out that their search results are even saved (hint: they are), never mind potentially shared with the public.
The path to hell is paved with good intentions like those of AOL Research. In allowing this private information to circulate the internet unrestricted, AOL has seriously violated the trust of its customers.
It's high time AOL Search takes a reading from the Book of Google.
Good luck to them...
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