AOL, in blatant violation of its users privacy just released the log of 3 month’s worth of searches by 650,000 users. Not to the DOJ, but for open download by anyone. The claim:
“This collection is distributed for non-commercial research use only. Any application of this collection for commercial purposes is STRICTLY PROHIBITED”
Prohibited. Yeah, right. As if they could control it. The data is supposedly “anonymized”, which in AOL-speak means the screen-name is replaced by a unique user number. Anyone a little bit familiar with data mining knows what this means, and obviously some commenters on the AOL blog have already put two and two together, “outing” certain users whose identity was easy to find based on the search patterns. I don’t even want to think what data mining pro’s will do with this.
AOL, you betrayed your users. If they are any smart, they will boycott your services.
Update #1 (8/6): I’m going out on a limb here with this prediction: as they realize the magnitude of what they did (or if they don’t, due to the PR nightmare) AOL will apologize, the fingerpointing starts and heads will roll. They will remove the download link. Not before anyone who wanted the data will have obtained it though.
“The data includes personal names, addresses, social security numbers and everything else someone might type into a search box. 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. “
Update #3 (8/6): The download link leads to a blank page. Perhaps AOL Exec’s are waking up… I wish all my predictions (see the first update above) would materialize this fast. I wonder if there will be a black market for the “limited edition” downloaded dataset… eBay, anyone?
Update #4 (8/6): Dennis pondering about possible ramifications, partly based on our Skype IM:
- Zoli estimates maybe 1,500-2,000 downloads by the time AOL woke up to what they’d done. What’s the real number?
- How long was the file in the wild?
- Could illicit copies end up on eBay?
- Could market data derived from the file end up on eBay or as part
of a market intelligence offering? Almost certainly the second if not
- What will be the impact on AOLs stock price?
- Might shorters speculate on the impact?
- What about a class action lawsuit? For once I think there are
decent grounds for one of the ambulance chasers to send out its hit
squad – they may even get what they need from the file
- Will AOL be able to track who got the file?
- What is the potential for wholesale identity theft among those 650,000 AOL users?
Update #5 (8/6): The last thing I expected was to find myself deleting comments; but this situation forced me to. A commenter provided a link to his site where he put up the file for anyone to download. I know the cat is out of the bag, and there will be several other sites, but at least I don’t want to actively promote making a bad situation even worse. Since I can’t edit comments, my only choice was to delete it.
Update #6 (8/7): ZDNet agrees: “People will be boycotting the company because of their blatent disregard for the privacy of users.”
The news is out on Infoworld, was well as mainstream news media all the way to Korea.
- AOL Releases Search Logs from 500,000 Users
- AOL Research exposes data; we’ve got a little sick feeling
- AOL releases search data on 500k users… and then tries to take it back
- More AOHell
- Forget The Government, AOL Exposes Search Queries To Everyone
- AOL Gate: Search Query Data Scandal
- You never had privacy anyway
- What do people search AOL for? Now we know
- AOL Shared Private Search Queries
- AOL Search Data Launches World’s Biggest Experiment On Privacy Invasion
- No, no, no, you weren’t supposed to tear down THAT wall