Researchers Feeling Conflicted Over AOL Data

from the in-two-minds dept

The leak of a ton of search data at AOL has been nothing short of a mess, culminating Monday in the termination of some employees at the company. The privacy concerns overshadowed how interesting the data was, and AOL’s mistake in not stripping out personally identifiable information undid their original good intention: to give researchers a look at a large amount of search data, something that’s often difficult for them to get their hands on. Though AOL pulled the data, it was downloaded by plenty of people before it got yanked, and many search researchers have been examining it. However, feeling some ethical pangs, some can’t bring themselves to look at it. It’s nice to see these people have some ethical concerns, but as long as they’re using the information responsibly, it doesn’t seem like they have much to be worried about. However, as some researchers point out, the ongoing effect of the AOL gaffe will be to make search companies think twice about releasing any kind of data, even if they have anonymized it. That’s really not an ideal solution, as it limits the ability of people outside search companies to research and refine search technology. The answer is to release the data responsibly, taking users’ privacy into consideration. In the meantime, these researchers should probably just carry on with the data, since it’s last they’re likely to see for a while — just try to avoid fingering individual users with their search habits.


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Comments on “Researchers Feeling Conflicted Over AOL Data”

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9 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

I dont believe its unethical to use that data for non-unethical purposes. It was only unethical for it to be released, as not only will it fall into the hands of those using it for unethical purposes, it breaches the trust of the users. There is no such implicit trust relationship between researchers and AOL users, although there is a more primitive ethical imperative for them to do no evil with it. Keep right on using that data, the damage is already done and now let us gain as much from it as we can.

techdirtReader says:

I don't need their help

I’m not a big fan of companies sharing my data – even anonymously – with other companies to “improve my user experience”. Somehow, every time a company wants to “improve my user experience”, the company ends up with more revenues and I end up with a big brother-esque experience (aka Amazon suggestions based on past history)

Hence, I’m all for limiting the ability of people outside search companies to research and refine search technology.

Luke Metcalfe (user link) says:

Other means of getting data for research

Why don’t researchers make use of proxies more? So they have subjects specify a proxy in their browser and just keep searchings. That way they can control for the types of people using the data, and get to see more than just what they did on the AOL site.

(Although this data is quite rich showing which sites they went to after searching).

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