AOL Slammed Over Search Data Release

AOL's decision to release search data on 20 million searches performed over a three-month period is receiving criticism from across the Internet, and is renewing calls for greater privacy when it comes to Web searches. The data first appeared about ten days ago on the company's research site, but was not discovered until the weekend.

While the identities of the users were scrambled to protect AOL users, it is still possible to see what users were searching for by searching for that scrambled identity. This could include searches for personal information on the Internet, some say.

A representative for AOL said the company was "upset and angry" over the mistake, and admitted it did not properly vet the file for any personal information. Still, the company defended the premise of the offering as an attempt to "reach out to the academic community."

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.

AOL removed the data Sunday night around 10pm Eastern. However, the damage had already been done. Some say the data in these files could be used by unscrupulous marketers who would use the keyword data for ad spamming on sites like Google. Others claim that AOL should be boycotted for violating users privacy, and others wondered if the data may be poured over by law enforcement.

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.

While some claim that personal information is included in these files, AOL disagreed, yet said it was not attempting to defend itself. "Although there was no personally-identifiable data linked to these accounts, we're absolutely not defending this. It was a mistake, and we apologize."

An internal investigation is now underway, AOL said.

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