AOL’s Apology Misses the Mark

AOL has issued an apology for releasing the logs of nearly 20 million web searches documenting three months of activity by 650,000 AOL users:

“This was a screw-up, and we’re angry and upset about it. 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,” AOL, a unit of Time Warner, 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. We’ve launched an internal investigation into what happened, and we are taking steps to ensure that this type of thing never happens again.”

While AOL did replace users’ account names with an ID number, the data can still be personally-identifiable. Further, by linking multiple searches from the same ID number, interesting (and very personal) patterns emerge. From 27B Stroke 6:

Some search histories seem to tell not very pretty stories.

One starts with “how to talk sexy to your man” followed one day later by “cancer man love compatibility” and six days later by the queries “controlling ex spouses”, “and “men who are emotionally abused” and “porn.com.”

Nine days later, someone typed in “borderline personality disorder” multiple times and then days later there were many queries about “men that are abused by wives.” The queries seem to be coming from somewhere in Toledo, Ohio. Months later someone searched for “ohio correctional institute strkyer ohio,” then for airline tickets to Detroit Wayne airport and then finally on the words “win him back.”

And more simply, people often “ego search” to see what information is about them on the web and then search for friends or family. And then sometime later they might search for something more private — like for porn or health information or cheap prescription drugs. At least one 14 year old MySpace user from Indiana is identifiable — and further searches readable, as is a woman who typed her dating profile url into the search box.

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