Users Outraged by AOL Gaffe

The flames were hot and nasty today as users swarmed to message boards to complain about AOL's "research" blunder, which exposed the search logs of more than 650,000 of its customers to the public.

"AOL, you betrayed your users," blogs Zoli Erdos, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. "If they are any smart, they will boycott your services."

A blogger named TechCrunch put a finer point on AOL's gaffe: "The data includes personal names, addresses, social security numbers and everything else someone might type into a search box," TechCrunch notes. "The most serious problem is the fact that many people often search on their own name, or those of their friends and family, to see what information is available about them on the net. Combine these ego searches with porn queries and you have a serious embarrassment. Combine them with "buy ecstasy" and you have evidence of a crime. Combine it with an address, social security number, etc., and you have an identity theft waiting to happen. The possibilities are endless."

Get the rest of the story at Dark Reading.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

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optodoofus 12/5/2012 | 3:45:17 AM
re: Users Outraged by AOL Gaffe So, I guess I should be upset about this if I am a porn-addicted ego-surfer who thinks that the best way to buy ecstasy is to do a web search on "buy ecstasy".

Come on, people, get real. There are many things in this world to be outraged about. This is not one of them.

chip_mate 12/5/2012 | 3:45:14 AM
re: Users Outraged by AOL Gaffe ""AOL, you betrayed your users," blogs Zoli Erdos, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. "If they are any smart, they will boycott your services.""

What kind of visionary SV Entrepreneur uses the walled garden services of AOL?
Wow, have I got some crappy business plans to pitch to this clown. If he's using AOL, he's sure to invest in my "solar powered, IMS, SIP enabled, Flashlight" idea!!
sgamble 12/5/2012 | 3:45:13 AM
re: Users Outraged by AOL Gaffe So how much for that flashlight?

...oh wait i didn't login with my anonymous account.
gran poobah 12/5/2012 | 3:45:11 AM
re: Users Outraged by AOL Gaffe See todays NY Times article about one woman's identification. Perhaps it may help you to see this is a serious invasion of privacy.
^Eagle^ 12/5/2012 | 3:45:06 AM
re: Users Outraged by AOL Gaffe dufus,

your comments are way off the mark. This stuff from AOL impacts far more people far more seriously than your less than enlightened comments regards "porn addicted ego surfers".

That subset of people are not the issue. The issue is posting of sensitive data about peoples personal issues. Health, finances, security. Things like women looking for help from rape and husbands / boyfriends who beat them. Things like researching for help with medical problems. How would you like it if your insurance company declined to offer your wife coverage because they found out that you had been surfing for what treatments work for cancer prior to applying for insurance coverage? What about the woman who is hurt by her husband because he found out she was searching for help and a safe house she could escape to?

What if your PERSONAL financial status were posted online by unscrupulous people?

This is a serious issue. Agreed there are many issues we should be worried about and working on in our society. I think that privacy is one of of those issues as a culture and society. The USA was built on individual rights to privacy. This is core to our democracy. One of the primary values in our nation. one of the major things that seperate us and make us different than dictatorships and facist empires.

By the way, did you know that our glorified homeland security dept in the form of USA customs/boarder patrol is now confiscating perscription drugs that seniors order from Canada? Protecting us from the terrorism of helping diabetes, heart and cancer patients. Gotta protect the profits of our drug companies.. it is clear that they must be protected at all costs. I wonder if we as a people should start billing the drug companies for this free goverment service! Can't have old folks saving money... that would only lead to more terror! NOTE, the drugs being confiscated are perscription drugs, made in same factories as those we buy here, with current date codes, same quality. Only difference is Canadian goverment allows their buyers to negotiate with drug companies for volume discounts. Same as any other industry. When buyers want more optical components or modules, the expect a discount. That is the AMERICAN way... open business based on fair negotiation and supply/demand status. However, in the usa, we are prevented from negotiated discounts for volume of drugs due to laws passed recently. $$ spent searching out and confiscating old folks perscriptions instead of those $$ spent looking for and catching real criminals who really threaten us.

Do you feel more safe now?


optiplayer 12/5/2012 | 3:45:04 AM
re: Users Outraged by AOL Gaffe Sailboat,

The first part of your post is dead on. The AOL incident is indeed serious. Your transition to homeland security and drug policy is quite odd and highly inaccurate.

First, lower drug prices in Canada are not a result of negotiations but government price caps. Second, please post a link to the "laws passed recently" that prevent volume discounts in the US.

Drug prices in America are set by suppy and demand. Elsewhere, they are set by government regulation. Patented prescription drugs can be obscenely expensive but it also costs an obscene amount of money to develop one and bring it to market. Off-patent drugs are cheaper here than just about anywhere due to tough competition among generic makers.

Take away the profit in the drug industry and you take away the innovation. Unfortunately, the US consumer does end up subsidizing a good part of the rest of the world which imposes government price caps.
firstmiler 12/5/2012 | 3:45:03 AM
re: Users Outraged by AOL Gaffe NY Times Article for those that missed it... really distills this issue in a way that most might not think about... Big Brother is watching:

A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749
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Published: August 9, 2006
Buried in a list of 20 million Web search queries collected by AOL and recently released on the Internet is user No. 4417749. The number was assigned by the company to protect the searcherG«÷s anonymity, but it was not much of a shield.

Skip to next paragraph

Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times
Thelma ArnoldG«÷s identity was betrayed by AOL records of her Web searches, like ones for her dog, Dudley, who clearly has a problem.

Graphic: What Revealing Search Data Reveals No. 4417749 conducted hundreds of searches over a three-month period on topics ranging from G«£numb fingersG«• to G«£60 single menG«• to G«£dog that urinates on everything.G«•

And search by search, click by click, the identity of AOL user No. 4417749 became easier to discern. There are queries for G«£landscapers in Lilburn, Ga,G«• several people with the last name Arnold and G«£homes sold in shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia.G«•

It did not take much investigating to follow that data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga., frequently researches her friendsG«÷ medical ailments and loves her three dogs. G«£Those are my searches,G«• she said, after a reporter read part of the list to her.

AOL removed the search data from its site over the weekend and apologized for its release, saying it was an unauthorized move by a team that had hoped it would benefit academic researchers.

But the detailed records of searches conducted by Ms. Arnold and 657,000 other Americans, copies of which continue to circulate online, underscore how much people unintentionally reveal about themselves when they use search engines G«Ų and how risky it can be for companies like AOL, Google and Yahoo to compile such data.

Those risks have long pitted privacy advocates against online marketers and other Internet companies seeking to profit from the InternetG«÷s unique ability to track the comings and goings of users, allowing for more focused and therefore more lucrative advertising.

But the unintended consequences of all that data being compiled, stored and cross-linked are what Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy rights group in Washington, called G«£a ticking privacy time bomb.G«•

Mr. Rotenberg pointed to GoogleG«÷s own joust earlier this year with the Justice Department over a subpoena for some of its search data. The company successfully fended off the agencyG«÷s demand in court, but several other search companies, including AOL, complied. The Justice Department sought the information to help it defend a challenge to a law that is meant to shield children from sexually explicit material.

G«£We supported Google at the time,G«• Mr. Rotenberg said, G«£but we also said that it was a mistake for Google to be saving so much information because it creates a risk.G«•

Ms. Arnold, who agreed to discuss her searches with a reporter, said she was shocked to hear that AOL had saved and published three monthsG«÷ worth of them. G«£My goodness, itG«÷s my whole personal life,G«• she said. G«£I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.G«•

In the privacy of her four-bedroom home, Ms. Arnold searched for the answers to scores of lifeG«÷s questions, big and small. How could she buy G«£school supplies for Iraq childrenG«•? What is the G«£safest place to liveG«•? What is G«£the best season to visit ItalyG«•?

Her searches are a catalog of intentions, curiosity, anxieties and quotidian questions. There was the day in May, for example, when she typed in G«£termites,G«• then G«£tea for good healthG«• then G«£mature living,G«• all within a few hours.

Her queries mirror millions of those captured in AOLG«÷s database, which reveal the concerns of expectant mothers, cancer patients, college students and music lovers. User No. 2178 searches for G«£foods to avoid when breast feeding.G«• No. 3482401 seeks guidance on G«£calorie counting.G«• No. 3483689 searches for the songs G«£Time After TimeG«• and G«£Wind Beneath My Wings.G«•

At times, the searches appear to betray intimate emotions and personal dilemmas. No. 3505202 asks about G«£depression and medical leave.G«• No. 7268042 types G«£fear that spouse contemplating cheating.G«•

There are also many thousands of sexual queries, along with searches about G«£child pornoG«• and G«£how to kill oneself by natural gasG«• that raise questions about what legal authorities can and should do with such information.

whyiswhy 12/5/2012 | 3:45:01 AM
re: Users Outraged by AOL Gaffe Optiplayer:

Price caps = not negotiated????

Canada has told the drug manufacturers (many of whom choose to locate in this country) what they are willing to pay for a given drug or drugs.

It is in many cases far lower than the prices those same drug companies charge US citizens.

The drug manufactuers are under no obligation to sell their drugs to Canada. Yet they freely choose to do so, in almost all cases.

That's called tough bargaining.

They make up for any lost margin with the active assistance of the US congress.

In as far as prescripitions make up a substantial part of Canadian medical care costs, US citizens are in fact funding Canadian socialized medicine.

optiplayer 12/5/2012 | 3:44:59 AM
re: Users Outraged by AOL Gaffe why-

you say:

"Canada has told the drug manufacturers (many of whom choose to locate in this country) what they are willing to pay for a given drug or drugs"

This is called a price cap.

"In as far as prescripitions make up a substantial part of Canadian medical care costs, US citizens are in fact funding Canadian socialized medicine"

I said the same thing in my post (did your read it?). There is nothing new in your post that I didn't state in mine. Here is the quote:

"Take away the profit in the drug industry and you take away the innovation. Unfortunately, the US consumer does end up subsidizing a good part of the rest of the world which imposes government price caps."

I'll repeat again... if the US government imposes price caps or everyone starts buying from countries that do, profit will disappear in the drug industry and so will innovation (eg new drugs). It cost about $1B and takes roughly 10 years to get a drug to market. Further, drug companies in aggregate spend about $30B in R&D annually. That money has to come from somewhere. Do you want to federalize drug development?

I have a lot of issues with the drug industry. I think they shamelessly market "feel good" drugs to people who probably don't need them and their marketing practices with the medical community aren't always the most ethical but I don't want to see the profit taken out of drug development.
trzwuip 12/5/2012 | 3:44:50 AM
re: Users Outraged by AOL Gaffe The drug industry is federalized! The reason it costs 10B to develop a drug is to meet all the FDA rules and regulations!

Meanwhile people die while waiting for FDA approvals.

The drug companies actually relish this regulation because it keeps out competition.
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