Why the AOL Search Fiasco Matters

Matthew Ingram and others have questioned the response to AOL’s release of search data.  The skeptics argue that the privacy concerns have been overblown, noting that no one has actually been personally identified through their searches.  No longer.  The NY Times runs a story in which it was relatively easy to identify a Georgia woman (AOL Searcher 4417749), with her search history telling a remarkably personal story over a three month period.  The article provides a powerful illustration not only of the severity of the AOL mistake (which remains online for all to see), but of why search companies simply should not be retaining this data for any significant period of time.  The public privacy risks, whether self-inflicted, from hackers, or via law enforcement fishing expeditions, outweigh the private commercial benefits.

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  1. I’m sure the “skeptics” will now move to phase 2: “Well, she wasn’t really HURT by the revelations, right? She has nothing to hide, she’s a grandma!” Just watch.

  2. Mark Evans says:

    given the hailstorm of controversy, i’m amazed the aol database is still available. why wouldn’t they remove it immediately? it strikes me as a privacy and management fiasco.

  3. Michael Geist says:


    I believe AOL has removed the database. During the period it was available, others captured it with at least two sites hosting mirrors of the same information. This raises legal issues for those sites, but the incident illustrates that it is nearly impossible to put the data genie back in the bottle.


  4. Big Brother
    Here is a related story – scary stuff:
    [ link ]

  5. What about the cross border issues now? How many of these people were Canadians who’s data was released by an American company for American researchers to “learn from”?

    This should really set of some discussion in Canada about what Canadian information is being extracted from Canada for sale in the US.