AOL search data scandal


AOL search data scandal

The AOL search data scandal was the result of a research project by AOL.

Background

On August 4 2006, AOL Research, headed by Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, released a compressed text file on one of its websites containing twenty million search keywords for over 650,000 users over a 3-month period, intended for research purposes. AOL pulled the file from public access by the 7th, but not before it had been mirrored and distributed on the Internet.

While none of the records on the file are personally identifiable "per se", certain keywords contain personally identifiable information by means of the user typing in their own name (ego-searching), as well as their address, social security number or by other means. Each user is identified on this list by a unique sequential key, which enables the compilation of a user's search history. [cite news
url = http://www.techcrunch.com/2006/08/06/aol-proudly-releases-massive-amounts-of-user-search-data
title = AOL proudly releases massive amounts of user search data
author = Michael Arrington
publisher = TechCrunch
date = 2006-08-06
accessdate = 2006-08-07
] The New York Times was able to locate an individual from the released and anonymized search records by cross referencing them with phonebooks or other public records. [cite news
url = http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10612FC345B0C7A8CDDA10894DE404482
title = A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749
publisher = The New York Times
date = 2006-08-09
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] Consequently, the ethical implications of using this data for research are under debate. [cite news
url = http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/23/technology/23search.html?ex=1313985600&en=cc878412ed34dad0&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
title = Tempting Data, Privacy Concerns; Researchers Yearn To Use AOL Logs, But They Hesitate
author = Katie Hafner
publisher = The New York Times
date = 2006-08-23
accessdate = 2006-09-13
] [cite news
url = http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20060823-7578.html
title = The ethics of using AOL search data
author = Nate Anderson
publisher = Ars Technica
date = 2006-08-23
accessdate = 2006-09-13
]

AOL acknowledged it was a mistake and removed the data, although the files can still be downloaded from mirror sites. [ [http://news.com.com/AOL+apologizes+for+release+of+user+search+data/2100-1030_3-6102793.html?tag=nefd.top AOL apologizes for release of user search data | CNET News.com ] ] [ [http://gregsadetsky.com/aol-data/ AOL search data mirrors ] ] Additionally, several searchable databases of the report also exist on the internet. [ [http://sergiorebelo.com/twodotfive/?page_id=25 twodotfive ] ]

Lawsuits

In September 2006, a class action lawsuit was filed against AOL in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

:"The lawsuit accuses AOL of violating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and of fraudulent and deceptive business practices, among other claims, and seeks at least $5,000 for every person whose search data was exposed." [ [http://news.com.com/2061-10803_3-6119218.html AOL sued over Web search data release | Tech news blog - CNET News.com ] ]

Notable Users

Although the searchers were only identified by a numeric ID, some people's search results have become notable due to various reasons.

Thelma Arnold

The New York Times successfully discovered the identity of several searchers, and with her permission, exposed search number 4417749 as Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old Georgian widow. This privacy breach was widely reported, and led to the resignation of AOL's CTO, Maureen Govern, on August 21 2006. The media quoted an insider as saying that two employees had been fired: the researcher who released the data, and his immediate supervisor, who reported to Govern. [cite news
url=http://today.reuters.com/news/articlenews.aspx?type=industryNews&storyID=2006-08-21T193427Z_01_WEN4315_RTRIDST_0_INDUSTRY-MEDIA-AOL-DC.XML
first=Kenneth
last=Li
title=AOL chief technology officer resigns: sources
date=2006-08-21
publisher=Reuters|
] [ [http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/08/22/business/aol.php AOL executive quits after posting of search data - International Herald Tribune ] ]

User 927

One product of the AOL scandal was the proliferation of blog entries examining the exposed data. Certain users' search logs were identified as humorous, disturbing, or even dangerous.cite web
last = Frind
first = Markus
authorlink = PlentyofFish
date = July 7, 2006
url = http://plentyoffish.wordpress.com/2006/08/07/aol-search-data-shows-users-planning-to-commit-murder/
title = "AOL Search Data Shows Users Planning to commit Murder"
format = blog
work = The Paradigm Shift
publisher = WordPress.com
accessdate = 2008-06-07
]

Consumer watchdog website "The Consumerist" posted a blog entry by editor Ben Popken identifying the anonymous user number 927 as having an especially chilling search history.cite web
last = Popken
first = Ben
date = July 7, 2006
url = http://consumerist.com/consumer/notag/aol-user-927-illuminated-192502.php
title = "AOL User 927 Illuminated"
work = The Consumerist
format = blog
accessdate = 2008-06-07
] The blog posting has since been viewed nearly 4,000 times and referenced on a number of other high-profile sites.cite web
url = http://digg.com/tech_news/AOL_User_927_Scariest_AOL_user_search_record
title = "AOL User 927: Scariest AOL user search record"
format =
work = Tech News
publisher = Digg
accessdate = 2008-06-07
]

In addition to sparking the interest of the Internet community, User 927 inspired a theatrical production, written by Katharine Clark Gray in Philadelphia. The play, also named "User 927", has since been cited on several of the same blogs that originally discovered the real user's existence.cite web
last = Battelle
first = John
authorlink = John Battelle
date = May 5, 2008
url = http://battellemedia.com/archives/004421.php
title = "User 927"
format = blog
work = John Battelle's Searchblog
publisher = Battelle Media
accessdate = 2008-06-07
] cite web
last = Popken
first = Ben
date = April 29, 2008
url = http://consumerist.com/5007240/aol-user-927-the-theatrical-production
title = "AOL User 927, The Theatrical Production"
work = The Consumerist
format = blog
accessdate = 2008-06-07
]

In popular culture

In January 2007, Business 2.0 Magazine on CNNMoney ranked the release of the search data #57 in a segment called "101 Dumbest Moments in Business." [ [http://money.cnn.com/magazines/business2/101dumbest/2007/full_list/index.html 101 Dumbest Moments in Business: Full list | Business 2.0 ] ]

References

External links

* http://www.gregsadetsky.com/aol-data/ — List of sites where the complete data can be downloaded.
* http://www.aolstalker.com/ — Search keywords and users. Tag users and search tags, also features funniest users list.
* http://www.aolpsycho.com — A website to discuss particular AOL users and their search logs
* http://mgraham.us/Data/AOL/ - Complete data files from the AOL data scandal.


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