AOL Sued over Public Release of Search-Related Data

Dennis Faas's picture

What would you do if you found records of your personal search information haphazardly sprinkled all over the web?

For three AOL subscribers, the reckless mismanagement of their personal data sparked a class-action lawsuit against the Internet giant this past Friday.

This is the first time AOL has been sued for the intentional release of over 19 million search requests made by about 650,000 subscribers during a period of three months. The Internet service provider is being charged under the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act and California's consumer-protection laws. (Source:

The suit was filed on Friday, September 22, in US District Court in Oakland, California. The claims set forth seek $1,000 in damages nationwide for individuals whose information was distributed online, plus another $4,000 for residents of California under the state's own laws. (Source:

Although the number of subscribers from California is not fully known yet, the suit is likely to cost AOL several million dollars to settle. (Source:

Interestingly, AOL blamed one of its researchers for the data release and has apologized for the privacy violation. Subsequently, a researcher and another employee of AOL have been fired. Moreover, AOL's chief technology officer has resigned. Despite the fact that the leaked information was obscured through the use of numeric ID's, some information leads to possible evidence of criminal actions. (Source:

Even though AOL substituted the users' names with numeric codes, the company attests that the search requests may contain sensitive data such as credit card numbers. Furthermore, some publications were able to trace the numeric ID's back to the actual users. For example, the Washington Post traced JoAnn Whitman of Grand Junction, Colorado, as she mistakenly typed her e-commerce order information into AOL's search engine. (Source:

John Dominguez, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, said on Monday, "People paid AOL with the belief that their privacy was going to be protected. That's not what happened." (Source:

Dominguez also said that AOL ought to stop collecting search records from its database and destroy any that it already has. The data released was immediately removed from the AOL website once the executives came to know of it but not soon enough to prevent it from being distributed online. (Source:

The suit alleges that AOL keeps records of its members' search queries without their knowledge. AOL did not comment regarding the lawsuit. (Source:

It is hard to say how much credibility AOL has lost as a result of this information leak. And with that said, it is equally likely that other search engine companies mine their data, much the same way AOL does. Thus, the question remains: just how safe is the information you input into your favourite search engine?

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