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AOL Forks Itself, Leaks User Search Data

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AOL’s public relations nightmare just turned into a night terror. On the heels of months and months of bad news, AOL Research flubbed on a scale so massive that New Coke rears its head back and laughs. Hundreds of thousands of users’ formerly private search queries were made public.

The company may want to distribute hardhats to its employees as lawsuits and boycotts come flying towards them. Though it was Google search data, which Google refused to release to the DOJ earlier, it is specific to AOL users.

Adam D’Angelo of California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) seems to be the first to chronicle AOL’s release of 650,000 randomly selected user logs containing 20 million search queries conducted between March and May of this year.

User screen names were replaced with unique user ID numbers. Many have noted that sequential assignment of ID numbers is enough for a skilled data miner to put together identifying information. The search queries reveal full names, social security numbers, addresses, and loads of questionable searches.

“This was not a leak – it was intentional,” writes D’Angelo. “In their desperation to gain recognition from the research community, AOL decided they would compromise their integrity to provide a data set that might become often-cited in research papersThis is a blatant violation of users’ privacy.”

After news of the release spread over the weekend, AOL Research removed the data download link, but not before hundreds, maybe thousands, of people downloaded it, prompting immediate discussion of boycotts and class action lawsuits.

TechCrunch blogger Michael Arrington called the move “utter stupidity.” A commentator in Arrington’s thread concisely presents what can be quickly deduced from some of the information:

I am no wiz kid, but looking at that sample, I was able to determine that this person is female, who is active with the american cancer society’s program, “tell a friend”, and that she lives in texas. She also likes the gaithers gospel music, and was looking into going to disneyland and a possible cruise with the gaither band.


“Combine these ego searches with porn queries and you have a serious embarrassment,” adds Arrington.

Some of the queries are quite dark. Markus Frind illustrates how user 17556639 conducted several searches for information on “how to kill your wife,” photographs of the dead and murdered, “decapatated photos,” “car crashes,” and www.murderdpeople.com.

Granted, he could be a researching novelist, or a detective for that matter. If “how to dispose of a dead wife’s body” and “how to beat a murder rap” appear next to user 17556639, then maybe folks should worry.

Getting almost as much buzz as privacy fallout is how effective and abused the information can be in search engine marketing. Because AOL Search is powered by Google, the information becomes an unintended gift for e-marketers. “It’s Christmas in August for SEO, PPC, spammers, everyone,” said WebProNews’ David Utter.

“The big affiliate marketers will make millions off this,” writes Frind, “i’m already busy processing the data, and after taking a quick peak at the data its an absolute gold mine for PPC and SEO.

“Google/ AOL have just given some of the worlds biggest spammers a breakdown of high traffic terms its just a matter of weeks now until google gets mega spammed with made for adsense sites and other kind of spam sites targetting keywords contained in this list.”

AOL’s PR department will have its work cut out for it trying to spin this one. They may long for the typical Monday morning headaches of dealing with deceased AOLers trying to cancel their accounts, or marketers enraged over Goodmail.

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