Wednesday, August 09, 2006

AOL Shoots Itself In The Foot - Magazine Article

Parmy Olson, 08.08.06, 2:00 PM ET

Just as Time Warner's AOL unit is reaching out to try to get more users by providing services for free, the Internet service provider has admitted to the kind of gaffe that is likely to scare them away: It inadvertently revealed to the world what 650,000 of its subscribers searched for as they browsed for online information.

The searches often contained data that helped identify the users themselves, including names, Social Security numbers and local landmarks that they had looked up.

''This was a screw-up, and we're angry and upset about it,'' AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein told The Associated Press. ''It was an innocent enough attempt to reach out to the academic community with new research tools, but it was obviously not appropriately vetted, and if it had been, it would have been stopped in an instant.''

The information was posted as a 440-megabyte downloadable file called "500Kusers.tgz" on a Web site,, about ten days ago. It was only when a number of Web logs began linking to the site over the weekend that AOL removed the file, which contained 19 million queries made from March 1 to May 31. By then, copies of the file and its contents were circulating over the Internet.

In the file, AOL used serial numbers in the place of users' screen names. However, some queries include the names of users who were keen to see what has been written about them on the Web. When the names are bundled together with local restaurants and landmarks, it would be no major feat for friends, employers or fraudsters to work out users' identities.

According to, the queries listed for one user included "shore hills park mays landing nj," "frank william sindoni md," "ceramic ashtrays" and "transfer money to china".

This sort of information is perfect fodder for advertisers, AOL's main source of revenue. That's where the company's latest gaffe could hurt most, says Forrester Research analyst Shar VanBoskirk. "The big concern now is that AOL will make less money from advertisers because people won't be willing to share info about themselves," she notes.

Some AOL users may now become more cautious about letting the company track their behavioral search patterns. They might be more inclined to read through the company's privacy policy and opt out of having their searches tracked, VanBoskirk said, and AOL could also end up with less traffic generally.

The information that AOL revealed is essentially the same type of data that the U.S. Department of Justice demanded from the company and its search competitor Google in March. While AOL complied with the government’s request, Google refused to make the disclosures, and a judge eventually ruled that the company did not have to hand over search requests.

A change in perception of AOL's brand could be detrimental. "AOL has branded itself to be a user-friendly doorway to the Internet, particularly for older people," says VanBoskirk. But, she added, older people are the ones who are more sensitive about privacy violations and the Internet generally.

"In an environment where search engine loyalty is already difficult to tie down, something like this is only going to push people to use other search engines."

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