AOL Search Data Reportedly Released

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AOL has apparently released details of Internet searches performed over a period of three months by hundreds of thousands of its subscribers, raising privacy concerns.

The data, apparently made available for research purposes, is no longer available at the Web site, but details of the data were cited by technology blog site Techcrunch, and the page linking to it was cached by Google's search engine.

The cached copy of the page said the data comprised about 19 million Web searches performed by 658,000 users from March through May. The page warned of sexually explicit language in some of the queries, and said of the data, "This collection is distributed for noncommercial research use only." The page contained a link to a compressed copy of the data archive.

The page asked researchers using the data to cite a research paper entitled "A Picture of Search" based on the data, which names two AOL employees as co-authors. That paper is still available for download.

AOL officials in London are aware of the issue, they said Monday morning. They had no further comment, and referred queries to the company's U.S. headquarters.

Cause for Concern?

The release of such information poses serious privacy concerns. Major search engine companies fought a request for similar data on user searches last year by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The U.S. government wanted to use the data to check the effectiveness of a federal law aimed at minors' access to harmful material. In January it filed a motion with the court to compel Google to comply with its subpoena and turn over a "random sample" of 1 million Web site addresses found in its search engine index. It also asked the company the text of all queries filed on the search engine during a specific week.

America Online, Yahoo, and Microsoft's MSN were also subpoenaed, and complied to varying degrees.

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