AOL search query data release: The aftermath

As expected, there has been much discourse following AOL’s release of the search query records of 650,000 of their users over a three-month period. After the publically-released data (which was originally put up for research purposes, with no ill intent), was discovered by a blogger, news subsequently spread throughout the online communities, prompting many people to download the data and AOL to eventually pull the data from their site. However, some of those who had already got the data began to offer it up for download, either from their servers or through Bittorrent, providing a very good example of “letting the cat outta the bag”.

No end to the data

Traditional news began covering the story today, with even TIME magazine penning a little piece about the incident and its relation with privacy rights, or the lack thereof. Other people have been more enterprising, with someone setting up an online, searchable database of the results, thus saving people the time of importing all the data into their own DBMS.

After it was discovered that users were apparently searching for “how to kill your wife”, ValleyWag set up a contest to find the scariest search record. Apparently, the online community’s appetite for the grotesque is insatiable.

Even more interesting were some of the results from the contest: Someone apparently submitting a search query that looked very much like a “message in a bottle” of a castaway stranded on an island. ValleyWag suspects a viral marketing campaign for the TV series Lost. Or, maybe someone is actually stranded on an island in the South Pacific with a laptop and WiFi access – though that wouldn’t be such a bad life!

Changes upcoming

With all the bad publicity AOL has been getting as of late (problems with cancelling customer accounts, workforce reductions, etc.), this leak could not have come at a worse time. Further complicating the situation is the fact that bloggers spread the information like wildfire, and helped the data get into wide release. In fact, the previously mentioned AOL Search Database is in violation of the user agreement that came with the search data – it states that the information provided is only to be used for non-commercial (research) purposes. The search database site is clearly displaying ads and the owner hoping to profit from it.

Companies are going to tighten up their policy on data release, and I wouldn’t expect any of them to be releasing data to the research community any time soon. At the very least, the way they deal with search records will be kept even more discreet.

One Comment »

  1. There’s a website to analyze and duscuss particular AOL users: http://aol.zanoza.lv/

    “My neighbour is killing cats”: http://aol.zanoza.lv/user/723190
    “ways to kill yourself”: http://aol.zanoza.lv/user/9486162
    “wife killer”: http://aol.zanoza.lv/user/17556639

    A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749: http://aol.zanoza.lv/user/4417749

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