AOL apologises for released search data

Written by Ryan Garside

August 8, 2006 // 1:21 p.m.

Tags: #aol #apologises #apology #data #query #search #sinister

AOL has described their actions as a "screw up" after the American ISP released the search query data of over 650,000 of its users.

The company has held its hands up over the mistake and apologised to its users, claiming that the mistake did in fact breach the privacy of its users. Fortunately, for AOL, the search data had substituted the user names for numeric ID's, however the company has acknowledged that search data may contain personally identifiable data.

Andrew Weinstein described the incident like this:

"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."

Despite this innocent attempt, the search query data contains some rather more sinister data. ZDnet is hosting a report with various data taken from the search files:

What's not (normal) is that user 710794 also regularly searched for "lolitas", a term commonly used to describe photographs and videos of minors who are nude or engaged in sexual acts.

Another search also represented the dark nature of some people's searches:

how to kill your wife
pictures of dead people
photo of dead people
car crash photo


Other rather disturbing searches included pictures of dead cats, bestiality and child rape stories. It really makes for grim reading. AOL has recently been pushing its search engine facilities; it currently lies fourth in the search engine battle behind Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

How do you feel about this incident? Do you think AOL has made a massive mistake or are you more concerned about the types of searches people are doing? Let us know in the forums.

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