RealTime IT News

EFF Goes After AOL

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate AOL's disclosure of search data for 650,000 users.

In its complaint, the privacy group asked the government to investigate the data breach, force AOL to pay for credit monitoring for users affected and waive fees for subscribers wanting to cancel the online service.

Last week, AOL admitted it had "screwed up" by making search data from March to May available to researchers on research.aol.com.

Although a red-faced AOL quickly removed the 440MB downloadable file, the information spread across the Internet and is being used by both individuals and businesses.

"We have no way of identifying the 658,000" accounts impacted, AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein told internetnews.com. The company has launched an investigation into how this occurred, he said.

AOL twice violated the FTC's deceptive trade practices by not protecting consumer information from public disclosure and failing to use proper security to protect consumer information, the EFF charged in its government complaint.

Weinstein said the company's privacy policy is sufficient.

But EFF attorney Marcia Hofman said in a statement that AOL isn't doing enough.

"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."

Hofman said the disclosure exposed financial, medical and sexual details of users conducting searches on AOL.

"People treat their search engine like a confidant," EFF attorney Kevin Bankston told internetnews.com.

EFF would like to raise the protection of search engine strings to that of e-mail. The history of what you search for is as intimate as your e-mail, said Bankston.

The EFF asked the FTC to order AOL to stop storing logs of search requests.

"But this problem isn't limited to AOL –- every search company stores this kind of data," according to Bankston in a statement.

Earlier this year, AOL and other search engines faced Department of Justice subpoenas asking for records to assist in preventing child pornography.

AOL, MSN and Yahoo complied with the subpoena, while Google fought the government request in court.

Search data supplied to the DoJ likely carried the same privacy risk as the information unwittingly made public by AOL, according to Bankston.