Privacy Group Seeks Federal Probe Of AOL

A privacy group wants the Federal Trade Commission to investigate AOL for releasing search query data, and it wants the collection of such data essentially stopped.

August 16, 2006

2 Min Read
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A privacy group has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate AOL for publishing on the Web search phrases and words used by 658,000 subscribers during a three-month period.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, based in San Francisco, said AOL violated its own privacy policy and FTC regulations, and should be ordered to notify the people affected, and to stop logging search data "except where absolutely necessary."

"Search terms can expose the most intimate details of a person's life -- private information about your family problems, your medical history, your financial situation, your political and religious beliefs, your sexual preferences, and much more," EFF attorney Marcia Hofmann said in a statement issued this week. "At the very least, AOL should notify every customer whose privacy has been jeopardized by the company's careless handling of this incredibly private information, and AOL should not store this kind of data in the future when it doesn't have to."

AOL confirmed last week that it had posted and then taken down the information and apologized for what the company said was a mistake on the part of its research team. Nevertheless, the data was available on the Internet for days, which was long enough for it to be downloaded and posted on other sites.

In releasing the data, AOL tried to hide the identity of the people whose search patterns were tracked by replacing their names with numbers. The New York Times, however, was able to identify users based on the information listed."We've asked the FTC to make sure that AOL rectifies the damage that's been done and improve its privacy protections for the future," EFF attorney Kevin Bankston said. "But this problem isn't limited to AOL -- every search company stores this kind of data. Hopefully, AOL's shocking violation of its users' privacy will spur Congress to clarify that the same law that prevents these companies from disclosing our personal emails also applies to our search logs."

The incident is expected to help privacy activists pressuring Congress to adopt restrictions on the handling of search data by Internet companies. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill this year that would prohibit companies from storing certain types of search data. Supporters hope the AOL incident will spur legislators to pass the bill when they return from summer break.

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