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AOL opens up Pandora’s Box, leaks private data

AOL: you've got murderOver the weekend AOL research “accidentally” released an ungodly amount of search data (20M+ searches by 500K AOL users over 3 months) that includes some VERY sensitive information about its users. While there are no names associated with these searchers, you can deduce a lot from what some of these people have searched for. Some of these users have entered their social security numbers, addresses, searches for where to buy drugs, even details on how to commit a murder.

This type of thing really reminds me of Minority Report – what do you do with information like this where it “seems” like somebody is about to commit a crime? What about the fact that AOL has basically setup so many people for identity theft? If you’re an AOL user, you might want to monitor your credit for about a year.

Related : Reuters AOL Story, AOL apologized today, Download the AOL data (mirrors)


By the way, if you\’re an AOL user and are on broadband, stop paying for your account – they just made the service free, but they won\’t voluntarily stop collecting money from you unless you request it. This is assuming anyone will still use AOL after this fiasco. Want more analysis? Mark of PlentyofFish has an interesting post.
So who exactly is affected? Is it just AOL users or anyone using AOL search earlier this year? Is this actually Google\’s search results (since they power AOL search)?

Comment by Art — August 7, 2006 @ 3:58 pm

In all the current discussion about AOL’s sharing of the query-log
data, there has been little emphasis on the importance of such data to
research on information retrieval. In addition to the real privacy
concerns, a key point that must be considered is the fact that if
useable data is not made available to the wider research community,
only the big search companies will be able to analyze that data. We
academic researchers are increasingly dependent upon industry for this
sort of data to do research; the sort of small-scale data that can be
gathered in a university-based setting is simply insufficient for
obtaining reliable experimental results.

Should companies be prevented from sharing data with the research
community (either by law or public outcry), research progress will be
greatly reduced, as it will be impossible to compare different studies
with one another, since each study’s data will be proprietary, and
thus no one will be able to trust any research result from another
lab. All non-industrial research in this area will more-or-less dry
up, and search technology will tend more and more to be developed in
“closed-shop” efforts within the large firms; innovative startups and
open-source hacking will not exist, since the research projects that
serve as launching pads for such technological innovation will not
exist. This prospect should disturb us all, as search technology
(broadly construed) is more and more the vehicle that people use to
gain information about their society and the world.

All of this is not meant to ignore the real privacy issues that can be
involved in the preparation and release of such data. It appears to
me that there was little real privacy risk in the data released by
AOL, but it is clear that policies and practices need to be debated
and developed that accomplish two essential goals: (a) to protect the
privacy of individuals in any sharing of research data, and (b) to
ensure that as much useful data can be shared by companies with the
greater research community. In this effort researchers and privacy
experts must collaborate to ensure that all sides of these important
issues are properly addressed.

Shlomo Argamon, Associate Professor
Department of Computer Science
Illinois Institute of Technology
Chicago, IL 60616

Comment by Shlomo Argamon — August 9, 2006 @ 4:43 pm

[…] In a twist of irony, AOL gave a major contribution to the world of web spam last week by releasing massive amounts of personal search data that is currently being used to create enormous networks of spammy websites. With the recent reports of spyware and other spam-related results being turned up by Google’s search results, its even more important to make sure your computer is protected. You might want to scan your PC. […]

Pingback by Big News Today » AOL digs for gold in spammer’s parent’s house — August 16, 2006 @ 2:41 pm

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