Forget The Government, AOL Exposes Search Queries To Everyone

from the have-fun-with-it... dept

Remember back in January when Google got all that praise for resisting the federal government's effort to collect a big batch of search queries for a separate case? Google got all sorts of praise for supposedly protecting the privacy of its users, even as many other companies turned over the data. Among those who turned over the data without question was AOL. Apparently, they've figured that, if the government has such data, why shouldn't everyone else? Perhaps they just figured that the government was likely to leak the data anyway. No matter what the reasoning, they've decided to simply hand it out themselves for "research" purposes to anyone who might want it. SiliconBeat points us to someone who noticed the release of search logs from 500,000 unlucky AOL users. While the data had been made somewhat anonymous by replacing usernames with numbers, in plenty of cases the data is clear enough to work out who the user is. It seems that the outrage over this has convinced AOL to pull down the data, but plenty of copies are already out there. It's really quite stunning, given the debate just months ago about the importance of Google protecting this data, that anyone at AOL would think it was a good idea to basically release the same exact type of data into the public, exposing the private searches of thousands.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Andrew Strasser, Aug 7th, 2006 @ 2:43am

    They never learn.

    Thus another reason to not do business with AOL. From lawsuits when they first started because they offered unlimited internet with one phone line per state and now their overpriced slow me down gimmick. I just don't see them as a competitor in the Global market for much longer. Though i bet they'll make a nice writeoff for Time/Warner.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    jay son, Aug 7th, 2006 @ 4:23am


    and they never will learn. reasons like this are why i left aol years ago. of course that was after the 9 month battle where they wouldn't let me cancel my own account..

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Luke, Aug 7th, 2006 @ 5:14am

    So what is the worst possible thing somebody's sea

    How about somebody who it looks like is searching for information on their family tree, information for English teachers in a conservative US state, the website of a local church, chamber of commerce, and rotary chapter in the same state in between searching for MySpace, cheerleaders, preteen sex and strap on sex toys.

    AOL has kindly replaced these people’s screenname with a sequential integer but I am guessing if you went to that church, Chamber of Commerce, or Rotary chapter you would be able to pick an English teacher with that surname.

    Maybe he made all those searches and deserves to be found out. Maybe he shares one internet connection with his son. Maybe his nextdoor neighbour steals his WiFi. In any case, I expect that the free AOL CD he picked up a while ago might have suddenly become pretty expensive.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 7th, 2006 @ 5:17am

    What about those "search voyeur" sites? I thought there were pages that would anonymously show you the search terms that others were using.

    Do they still exist? Are they a concern? Or maybe not because they don't do it in bulk? Or do they filter the data first?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    NSMike, Aug 7th, 2006 @ 6:01am

    Not that I was considering it in the first place..

    ...But this clinches my forever staying away from their new "free" portal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    jeff, Aug 7th, 2006 @ 6:19am

    and they did this at a time when their business is going badly enough to make them think that giving away service for free is a good idea? and now this? sounds like one of two things is going on; a) it's just another company being run by incompetent (and probably impotent) dickheads who don't know the first thing about business, or, b) someone's trying really really hard to just get it over with and end aol. i hope it's the latter. i STILL get those fucking tins with cds in 'em, even after i sent a box of aol cds with a dead squirrel in it to box 1600 in utah.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 7th, 2006 @ 7:46am

    Re: idiots

    you should have called up your credit card company, and told them not to pay the SOB's

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    w!nX, Aug 7th, 2006 @ 8:00am


    Glad to say I work for TWC-RoadRunner. The only TW CD we use is to install USB drivers for cable modems. =P

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    DeadlyOats, Aug 7th, 2006 @ 8:43am

    Re: Idiots that never learn. Hmmm, can idiots lea

    I am SOOOOO GLAD that I never used AOL, and although I was curious and thought I would look into their free portal, my curiosity has been killed by the cat! (Bad pun; I know. So, sue me. :^p )

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous of Course, Aug 7th, 2006 @ 10:15am

    Search Engine Queries

    Watching these at 2am on a Friday night
    can be hypnotizing.

    Yes, I know I have no life.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    gadfly, Aug 7th, 2006 @ 11:49am

    AOL will use the Kaiser Permanente strategy

    Since it has been widely mirrored, AOL will next find a scapegoat so the public will be more worried about those villains that dared to point out the problem and mirror the evidence.

    Here is the instant recipe:

    1) PR department reaches out to their media contacts. Journalists then tell sensationalist story of "hackers" or "bloggers" who mirrored *your* private data. AOL worms out of responsibility for letting the data loose in the first place by declaring war on the evil bloggers.

    2) Now that there's no public support for the blogger, AOL can safely trick a government agency into publicly denouncing the blogger. Since the blogger is clearly a danger to public safety, the government is allowed to ignore all applicable law. After all their heart was in the right place, and that matter's more than an individual's rights. Also, since the press is already committed to portraying the blogger as a villain, the government knows that they will never have to apologize if they make a mistake. The press has a vested interest not to report the error.

    3) Next AOL's team of corporate lawyers will file a lawsuit. It doesn't matter if the lawsuit is frivolous - they are after the PR value of "prosecuting on behalf of the public", and reinforcing to the media that the blogger who dared link to the info is the evil one. If the blogger is poor, weak, and has no media platform of their own, then AOL might actually win the lawsuit by default, adding further legitimacy to their "public defender" posture.

    4) The public doesn't understand that killing the messenger only guarantees successful cover ups in the future. And as far as I can tell, they don't care that there is a layer of people who corporations can calculate as having no Constitutional rights in this country (if a person can't defend their rights, they might as well not exist). AOL's "issues management" team is weaving these assumptions into their strategy.

    Scapegoating worked for Kaiser Permanente. It'll work for AOL.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 8th, 2006 @ 11:19am

    Re: lmfao

    the only reason why USB cable modems exist in the first place is for TWC to take advantage of the innocent, naive idiots out there who don't know what they're doing and listen to whatever the cable guy says as he uses his (your county / city) tech GRE to screw together a couple threadings and hook up your "free cable" for the extra $50 cash that will go in his pocket ... jeez... drivers for a usb cable modem...ugh...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Fuck The U.S. Government., Aug 9th, 2006 @ 7:52am name says it all. Kiss my ass bush.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 9th, 2006 @ 12:08pm

    AOL was only worth it when you could use credit cards generated from a nifty cc algorithm and then phish (when phishing was new concept) for more aol accounts and valid credit card numbers... when the original Prodigy was still around... [sigh] oh to reminisce on the "gool ol' days"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Michael, Aug 12th, 2006 @ 8:30pm

    Re: idiots

    That is funny, I quit AOL for there business practices of not cancelling peoples accounts and the same thing happened to me. They still have a collection agency calling me about it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Aleksandar, Sep 20th, 2008 @ 8:28am

    Wait a minute

    You say that AOL replaced their names, so no one can recognize them.
    But then you say that you can recognize them by the logs of their search queries.
    If that's so, then you know what they searched for in the first place!?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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