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AOL Research exposes data; we've got a little sick feeling

(AOL has responded, saying they screwed up, and have taken the data down. More at update here).


Here are some excerpts from a post from Adam D'Angelo, over at CalTech, about AOL Research's efforts to engage with the research community. Does anyone else think they've gone over the line with this?

AOL just released the logs of all searches done by 500,000 of their users over the course of three months earlier this year. That means that if you happened to be randomly chosen as one of these users, everything you searched for from March to May (2006) is now public information on the internet.

...The data is "anonymized", which to AOL means that each screenname was replaced with a unique number. "It is still a research question how much information needs to be anonymized to protect users," says Abdur from AOL. Here are some examples of what you can find in the data:

Among user 545605's searches are "shore hills park mays landing nj", "frank william sindoni md", "ceramic ashtrays", "transfer money to china", and "capital gains on sale of house"....I'm leaving out the worst of it - searches for names of specific people, addresses, telephone numbers, illegal drugs, and more. There is no question that law enforcement, employers, or friends could figure out who some of these people are....I hope others can find more examples in the data, which is up for download over here (scroll down to the 500Kusers.tgz file).

If you go to the site, there's a person even thanking AOL for this info in comments. We haven't looked at this very closely yet, and haven't talked with AOL. But so far, we're cringing.

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a few months ago - Microsoft lauched an analogous project

Search Engines WEB on August 6, 2006 9:31 PM
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I dare you to compare this to the HIPAA standard of "de-identified" information that health organizations are now using as the standard to release data.

breakingranks on August 6, 2006 10:59 PM
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if you don't want to download 2 gigs and grep your way through, here's a site that'll let you search from a database: http://www.aolsearchdatabase.com .

daniel on August 8, 2006 12:29 AM
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search engine proxies have been around for a least a few years. Why dont people start using them?

heres a free one. http://www.blackboxsearch.com

Bob on August 9, 2006 8:13 PM
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