Internet Company's Publication of Search Logs Exposes Customers' Private Lives

Washington, D.C. - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate America Online (AOL) and require changes in its privacy practices, after the company recently released search history logs that exposed the private lives of more than a half-million of its customers.

Last week, news reports revealed that AOL published to the Internet three months of search queries from about 650,000 users. In its complaint, EFF argues that the release of this data violated AOL's privacy policy and the Federal Trade Commission Act and should be investigated. EFF further requests that the FTC require AOL to notify customers affected by the disclosure and to stop logging search data except where absolutely necessary.

"Search terms can expose the most intimate details of a person's life -- private information about your family problems, your medical history, your financial situation, your political and religious beliefs, your sexual preferences, and much more," said EFF Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. "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, and AOL should not store this kind of data in the future when it doesn't have to."

While AOL has removed the data from its own web site, the data is still freely available from other sites on the Internet. And although specific AOL screen names were not released, the data is associated with unique ID numbers, allowing each user's search terms to be grouped together. Whether because of users' searches for their own names or MySpace profiles, or searches related to their cities and neighborhoods, these search histories can expose -- and in some cases, already have exposed -- particular users' private searches to the world. In support of its complaint, EFF confidentially submitted examples of search queries containing personally identifiable information and search histories that could likely be tied to particular AOL subscribers.

"We've asked the FTC to make sure that AOL rectifies the damage that's been done and improve its privacy protections for the future," said EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. "But this problem isn't limited to AOL -- every search company stores this kind of data. Hopefully, AOL's shocking violation of its users' privacy will spur Congress to clarify that the same law that prevents these companies from disclosing our personal emails also applies to our search logs."

For the FTC complaint:

For more on the AOL data release:


Kevin Bankston
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Marcia Hofmann
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation

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