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AOL Takes Down Site With Users' Search Data

AOL Takes Down Site With Users' Search Data
AOL Takes Down Site With Users' Search Data 

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 8, 2006

AOL issued an apology yesterday for posting on a public Web site 20 
million keyword searches conducted by hundreds of thousands of its 
subscribers from March to May. But the company's admission that it made a 
mistake did little to quell a barrage of criticism from bloggers and 
privacy advocates who questioned the company's security practices and said 
the data breach raised the risk of identity theft.

"This was a screw-up and we're angry and upset about it," the company said 
in a statement. "Although there was no personally-identifiable data linked 
to these accounts, we're absolutely not defending this. It was a mistake, 
and we apologize."

The posted data were similar to what the U.S. Justice Department had been 
seeking when it subpoenaed Internet companies, including AOL, last year. 
AOL complied and handed over search terms that were not linked to 
individuals. Google Inc. fought the subpoena in court and won.

The AOL data was posted at the end of last month on a special AOL Web site 
designed by the company so researchers could learn more about how people 
look for information on the Internet. The company removed the data over 
the weekend when bloggers discovered it.

The Washington Post did not review the full 439-megabyte data set but 
contacted bloggers who had looked at it.

For the posted data, each person using AOL's search engine was assigned a 
unique number to maintain anonymity, the company said. But some privacy 
experts said scrutinizing a user's searches could reveal information to 
help deduce the person's identity.

Michael Arrington, editor of the blog TechCrunch, said some of the data 
contained credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, addresses and 

"People put anything they can think of into the search boxes," he said.

Based on his analysis so far, out of 20 million queries, the number that 
contained sensitive personal financial information such as credit card and 
Social Security numbers is probably "in the hundreds," he said.

"Most people aren't stupid enough to type their Social Security numbers in 
a search engine, but it's definitely enough to make AOL look stupid," he 

Some bloggers said some of the information available included queries on 
how to kill one's spouse and child pornography.

Experts said people search for all sorts of personal data -- including 
their own names -- with the assumption that it will remain private.

"I search on myself," said David H. Holtzman, president of GlobalPOV, a 
blog and consulting firm on privacy and security and author of the 
forthcoming book "Privacy Lost." "Now you think you have a disease or you 
have some emotional issue -- I'm a single parent and I'm always looking 
for things. All of a sudden there's a correlation between my name and 
something very private that I don't expect to have dumped all over the 

Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic 
Frontier Foundation, said AOL's apology was appreciated but the damage had 
already been done.

"The horse is out of the barn," he said. "The data's out there and been 
copied. This incident highlights the dangers of these companies storing so 
much intimate data about their users."

The mishap was rooted in an effort by AOL to design a Web site aimed at 
helping researchers do their jobs more effectively by including AOL 
open-source data tools, company spokesman Andrew Weinstein said.

A technician posted the data to the site without running them past an 
in-house privacy department, not realizing the implications, Weinstein 
said. An internal investigation is underway to determine what happened and 
how to prevent future occurrences, he said.

However, Weinstein also noted that identifying an individual by search 
terms alone is difficult because someone could have typed in a friend's 
name or address instead of his own. The AOL search network had 42.7 
million unique visitors in May, so the total data set covered 1.5 percent 
of search users that month. The 20 million search records represent about 
one-third of 1 percent of the total searches conducted on the AOL network 
in that period, the company said.

The data were gleaned from searches conducted by people with AOL user 
accounts in the United States.

2006 The Washington Post Company

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