AOL search data leak
The AOL search data leak was the release of detailed search logs by AOL of a large number of AOL users. The release was intentional and intended for research purposes; however, the public release meant that the entire Internet could see the results, rather than a select number of academics. AOL did not redact any information, causing privacy concerns since users could potentially be identified by their searches.
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.
AOL themselves did not identify users in the report; however, personally identifiable information was present in many of the queries, and as the queries were attributed by AOL to particular user accounts, identified numerically, an individual could be identified and matched to their account and search history by such information. The New York Times was able to locate an individual from the released and anonymized search records by cross referencing them with phonebook listings. Consequently, the ethical implications of using this data for research are under debate.
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."
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.
Through clues revealed in the search queries, the New York Times successfully uncovered the identities of several searchers. With her permission, they exposed user #4417749 as Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow from Lilburn, Georgia. 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 bizarre and macabre 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. As time has passed, more artistic renderings of individual user logs have appeared. A series of movies on the web site Minimovies called "I Love Alaska" puts voice and imagery to User 711391 which the authors have labeled as "an episodic documentary".
- Michael Arrington (August 6, 2006). "AOL proudly releases massive amounts of user search data". TechCrunch. Retrieved August 7, 2006.
- Barbaro, Michael; Zeller Jr, Tom (August 9, 2006). "A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749". The New York Times. Retrieved April 25, 2010. (Sign in or subscription required.)
- Katie Hafner (August 23, 2006). "Tempting Data, Privacy Concerns; Researchers Yearn To Use AOL Logs, But They Hesitate". The New York Times. Retrieved September 13, 2006.
- Nate Anderson (August 23, 2006). "The ethics of using AOL search data". Ars Technica. Archived from the original on September 2, 2006. Retrieved September 13, 2006.
- Dawn Kawamoto; Elinor Mills (August 7, 2006). "AOL apologizes for release of user search data". CNET. Retrieved August 12, 2013.
- "AOL search data mirrors". Retrieved August 12, 2013.
- "101 Dumbest Moments in Business: Full list". CNN.
- Elinor Mills (September 25, 2006). "AOL sued over Web search data release". CNET. Retrieved August 12, 2013.
- "A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749". Retrieved August 12, 2013.
- Li, Kenneth (August 21, 2006). "AOL chief technology officer resigns: sources". Reuters.
- AOL executive quits after posting of search data - International Herald Tribune
- Frind, Markus (July 7, 2006). "AOL Search Data Shows Users Planning to commit Murder" (blog). The Paradigm Shift. WordPress.com. Archived from the original on June 5, 2008. Retrieved June 7, 2008.
- AOL user #927
- Popken, Ben (July 7, 2006). "AOL User 927 Illuminated" (blog). The Consumerist. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
- "Leaked AOL search logs take stage in new play" (blog). CNet News Blog. CNET. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
- Popken, Ben (April 29, 2008). "AOL User 927, The Theatrical Production" (blog). The Consumerist. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
- "I Love Alaska - Lernert Engelberts & Sander Plug". minimovies.org. Submarinechannel. January 2009.