The AOL search data scandal
was the result of a research project by AOL
On August 4 2006
, AOL Research, headed by Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, released a compressed text file on one of its websites containing twenty million search keywords
for over 650,000 users over a 3-month period, intended for research purposes. AOL pulled the file from public access by the 7th, but not before it had been mirrored and distributed on the Internet.
While none of the records on the file are personally identifiable per se, certain keywords contain personally identifiable information by means of the user typing in their own name (ego-searching), as well as their address, social security number or by other means. Each user is identified on this list by a unique sequential key, which enables the compilation of a user's search history.
The New York Times was able to locate an individual from the released and anonymized search records by cross referencing them with phonebooks or other public records.
Consequently, the ethical implications of using this data for research are under debate.
AOL acknowledged it was a mistake and removed the data, although the files can still be downloaded from mirror sites. Additionally, several searchable databases of the report also exist on the internet.
In September 2006, a class action lawsuit was filed against AOL in the U.S. District Court
for the Northern District of California.
- "The lawsuit accuses AOL of violating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and of fraudulent and deceptive business practices, among other claims, and seeks at least $5,000 for every person whose search data was exposed.
Although the searchers were only identified by a numeric ID, some people's search results have become notable due to various reasons.
The New York Times successfully discovered the identity of several searchers, and with her permission, exposed search number 4417749 as Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old Georgian widow. This privacy breach was widely reported, and led to the resignation of AOL's CTO, Maureen Govern
, on August 21 2006
. The media quoted an insider as saying that two employees had been fired: the researcher who released the data, and his immediate supervisor, who reported to Govern.
One product of the AOL scandal was the proliferation of blog entries examining the exposed data. Certain users' search logs were identified as humorous, disturbing, or even dangerous.
Consumer watchdog website The Consumerist posted a blog entry by editor Ben Popken identifying the anonymous user number 927 as having an especially chilling search history.
The blog posting has since been viewed nearly 4,000 times and referenced on a number of other high-profile sites.
In addition to sparking the interest of the Internet community, User 927 inspired a theatrical production, written by Katharine Clark Gray in Philadelphia. The play, also named User 927, has since been cited on several of the same blogs that originally discovered the real user's existence.
In popular culture
In January 2007, Business 2.0 Magazine on CNNMoney ranked the release of the search data #57 in a segment called "101 Dumbest Moments in Business.
- http://www.gregsadetsky.com/aol-data/ — List of sites where the complete data can be downloaded.
- http://www.aolstalker.com/ — Search keywords and users. Tag users and search tags, also features funniest users list.
- http://www.aolpsycho.com — A website to discuss particular AOL users and their search logs
- http://mgraham.us/Data/AOL/ - Complete data files from the AOL data scandal.