Thursday, August 10, 2006

AOL --Release of Search Histories; Was It a Publicity Stunt?

According to various Internet sources, AOL's research.aol/pmwiki website had information regarding all of AOL's keyword searches history for the past 3 months. It was available online for serveral hours before AOL finally noticed and took it off, on Sunday August 6, '06. Approximately 658,000 of its users' search terms were published online. While AOL removed it and eventually released a statement of apology, that information may still be on the Internet (of course not aol anymore.) The actual user names were not posted; only a unique, random number id for each user. However, depending on what their keyword searches were, it may be possible to identify the user, or at least find out what h/she likes. That's scary! Recently, NYTimes identified one of the users, No. 4417749, and wrote up a story on Aug.9th. The person behind that number in the NYTimes said "In response, she plans to drop her AOL subscription. 'We all have a right to privacy', she said, 'Nobody should have found this all out.'" Unfortunately, all AOL can do is apologize. But, damage is done. Maybe in her case, they will offer her 6 months of free internet plus free credit monitoring just to show that they (AOL) cares for the privacy and protecting their users. Either way, I'm upset at AOL.

Actually, i think the release and timing was funny. AOL has been suffering quarter after quarter of AOL dial-up subscribers cancelling memberships. So, they recently decided that they will offer many of their premium services for free. Now you can open up an aol-dotcom webmail address. However, after the disclosure of the keyword searches intentially? or by accident? Would you use their free services? I wouldnt. But, maybe they did it purposefully so that people would go to their website to search the info.... and while the people are at AOL, they will be exposed to the ads and multi-media that AOL-TimeWarner has to offer. This drives traffic, more ad dollars, and hopefully more clicks and more exposure to aol sites, and more aol ads. And, maybe, people will buy music, videos, TimeWarner shows, or subscribe to one of TimeWarner's magazines. Or, maybe that's wishful thinking. I actually used a non-aol search engine to find information about the story. I never went to aol's or timewarner's websites. If i were the lady from the NYTimes story, I would try to get a hold of various internet privacy protection groups and push for legal protection of user information online.

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