AOL grabbed headlines last week when it announced that it was making its online services freely available to anyone with Internet access. Today, the company is making news for what is an inexplicable turn of events. The company freely made available the private search history of over 650,000 users without permission. The 439MB compressed download features over 20 million search queries over a three month period and was made available on AOL's research website along with a readme file detailing the results. In an effort to ease damage control, AOL has removed both links, but mirrors for both search data and the AOL readme (for better or worse) are mirrored at multiple sites.
The vast amount of data included in these search queries is staggering and the possibilities for abuse are endless. TechCrunch reports:
AOL has released very private data about its users without their permission. While the AOL username has been changed to a random ID number, the ability to analyze all searches by a single user will often lead people to easily determine who the user is, and what they are up to. The data includes personal names, addresses, social security numbers and everything else someone might type into a search box. The most serious problem is the fact that many people often search on their own name, or those of their friends and family, to see what information is available about them on the net. Combine these ego searches with porn queries and you have a serious embarrassment. Combine them with “buy ecstasy” and you have evidence of a crime. Combine it with an address, social security number, etc., and you have an identity theft waiting to happen.
It’s one thing to make private search data available to the federal government upon request (and even that has been widely debated over the past eight months), but to make it freely available from a public website is downright malicious. It’d be interesting to see what AOL’s response to this whole fiasco will be.