RealTime IT News

AOL Leaked Search Queries

AOL fessed up to leaking hundreds of thousands of search queries yesterday. But it was all a big mistake.

Spokesperson Andrew Weinstein told internetnews.com that the company posted the queries on July 31 on the publicly accessible research.aol.com.

Weinstein said AOL removed the queries, as soon as it discovered them, on Sunday evening.

"This was a screw up, and we're angry and upset about it," Weinstein said.

"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."

According to Weinstein, AOL mistakenly released search data for roughly 658,000 users over a three-month period from March to May.

AOL did not provide personally identifiable data, but it said search queries themselves can sometimes include such information.

Weinstein said the searches included in this data were U.S. searches conducted within the AOL client software and represent about one-third of 1 percent of the total searches conducted during the period.

Last February, all the major search engines dealt with privacy issues when the Department of Justice subpoenaed their records to fight child pornography.

Yahoo, MSN and AOL complied with the subpoena, but Google fought it in court.

It's all the kind of headache Alex van Eesteren of the search engine Ixquick.com is glad to avoid all together.

Ixquick.com differentiates itself from the competition by keeping no user data at all.

It deletes user IP addresses within 48 hours and then run a program to override old log files with blank new ones, erasing old search data.

It also only installs cookies without unique reference IDs.

"If data is being stored, misuse can happen," van Eesteren told internetnews.com. "AOL didn't leak the queries on purpose, but when you store the data, anything can happen."