EFF Demands FTC Investigate AOL

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed an official complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, demanding an investigation into the release of massive amounts of search data by AOL. The EFF also wants the FTC to require AOL to change its privacy practices.

AOL intentionally published the data in late July on its research site, although reports of the release only surfaced last week. The data included three months of search queries from 650,000 users, each identified by a number. AOL, like other major search engines including Google and Yahoo, logs the activity of its users.

Following a barrage of criticism over personal information included in the search queries -- potentially enabling users' identifies to be uncovered -- AOL pulled the data and issued an apology. The company said it was "upset and angry" in a statement, but defended the academic premise of the offering.

But the cat was already out of the bag and the search data soon appeared on numerous other Web sites. One site, aolstalker.com, has indexed the information and lets users sift through it for specific keywords. The New York Times recently connected one user with an actual person in a story on the matter.

The EFF asserts that AOL violated its own privacy policy and calls on the FTC to investigate. It asks that AOL notify customers affected by the disclosure and stop logging search data except where absolutely necessary.

"Search terms can expose the most intimate details of a person's life -- private information about your family problems, your medical history, your financial situation, your political and religious beliefs, your sexual preferences, and much more," said EFF Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann in a statement.

It is common for many Web surfers to use search engines in order to see what is posted about themselves or their family on the Internet. In fact, several consumer groups actively suggest "Googling" to ensure their personal data is not compromised.

At least one searcher, user 17556639, searched multiple times on topics of how to kill his wife, along with pictures of dead people, murders, car crashes, and decapitations. The EFF says it has submitted to the FTC specific examples of where information in the search data can be used to identify specific AOL subscribers.

"We've asked the FTC to make sure that AOL rectifies the damage that's been done and improve its privacy protections for the future," commented EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. "Hopefully, AOL's shocking violation of its users' privacy will spur Congress to clarify that the same law that prevents these companies from disclosing our personal emails also applies to our search logs."

AOL senior executive Jason Calacanis commented on the data release aftermath in his Web log. "I've been discussing what these smart people are saying about us with anyone and everyone at AOL who will listen to me," he said.

"I'm thinking about planning a corporate retreat where we bring these folks in and have them just vent on us and point out all the problems we have. It would be brutal, but as they say "the truth shall make you free." Also, the first step in sucking less, is knowing you suck."

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