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August 7, 2006

A hard lesson for AOL

Posted by Kim Peterson at 12:11 PM

Search researchers are meeting in Seattle this week for the SIGIR conference, and in advance of the event AOL researchers decided to release the search logs of about 650,000 users over three months.

Bad move.

Although the search logs were ostensibly anonymous - users were identified only by a number - the move raises questions about whether you can get information about a user based purely on the content of their searches. AOL has removed all the data that caused the the uproar, but one person who reviewed the file said there were searches for specific names, addresses and telephone numbers.

This blog reports the searches done by User #17556639. The queries include: "how to kill your wife," "photo of dead people," "murder photo" and "steak and cheese."

Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Watch says this isn't the exact type of information that the Department of Justice requested from search engines over the past year year. The DOJ just wanted to see a list of searches, and not a list of searches that were tied to a specific user.

Zoli Erdos wonders what the potential is for identity theft among the 650,000 AOL users whose searches were included in the data.

AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein didn't mince words in the company's response to the issue this morning: "This was a screw up, and we're angry and upset about it," he told Reuters. "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."

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