As if AOL’s customer service ‘bad apples’ and bohemoth software Good Mail weren’t bad enough, now AOL doesn’t realize (until some exposes it) that a department in their own company published search results for three months on their AOL users. And they say they are angry but can’t do anything about it now. Of course they can’t, it’s been out there for how long now??

In Time.com’s What AOL Said About You – The portal’s lapse tells a lot about the state of Web search privacy states:

Just a week after announcing it will give away free e-mail addresses and online storage space, AOL admitted yesterday it had mistakenly given away something far more valuable. In a move originally intended to help academics using its research site, the company (which, like Time.com, is owned by Time Warner) released information about Web searches conducted by 658,000 of its members between March and May. The data linked together millions of searches done by unnamed individuals over that three-month period, for example linking a Kentucky-based poker aficionado’s searches for poker lessons with his or her requests for help planning a suicide. Rather than providing portions of the data to accredited academics working on specific research, the information was released freely on the Web, enabling anyone and everyone online a peek at the private search patterns of AOL members. “This was a screw-up,” AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein said, in explaining that 20 million search records were compromised. “We’re absolutely not defending this. We apologize.”

The NYTimes (subscription) stated “It did not take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her friends’ medical ailments and loves her three dogs. “Those are my searches,” she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her.” and “AOL removed the search data from its site over the weekend and apologized for its release, saying it was an unauthorized move by a team that had hoped it would benefit academic researchers.”

Of course AOL removed the data after it was called on it. Duh!

In Time.com’s article, Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) stated, “Data security is in shambles. This latest leak gives us a window into the sensitivity of search strings. We all use search engines and don’t think about what someone could learn about the most sensitive aspects of our lives by studying what we search for over time.”

We have pointed readers to Privacy Rights Clearinghouse many times here. They list more than 150 serious data compromises so far in 2006. The breaches include lost bank backup tapes, hacking losses, stolen laptops, and releases of private information like AOL’s. And that’s only in 2006. Check out the big list of data breaches here going back to the Choice Point debacle in February 2005 and our many postings on just some of them here on this blog.

The Guardian (UK) Technology blog article states, “One day, you might get a phone call from a reporter who knows more about you than your mother ever did. Not just facts that are publicly available, but the kind of pornography you like, the time you thought you might have AIDS, how you planned to dispose of the body of your spouse, and so on. And if you have ever searched for bomb-making instructions or child pornography or something similar, you can now worry about the fact that someone may well have kept a record.” and this, “The fact that those logs exist means they are at least potentially accessible to governments and other organisations that want them badly enough, and are willing to get them by fair means or foul.”

And as ITWire.com.au stated, “It was supposed to be a service to help the online research community learn more about how people search for information on the web. Instead in what must be described as one of the most publicly embarrassing security breaches in recent memory, Time Warner owned ISP AOL has potentially compromised the privacy of 658,000 of its members.”

Web search is just another of those web tools that is a very powerful.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s being said by way of Google’s SciTech News site … via web search.

So the web search sword can cut both ways.

Way to go, AOL.

Were You Exposed?
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