Internet Privacy Group Files Complaint Against AOL

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a complaint yesterday asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate AOL and require strengthening of its privacy protections after the Dulles-based firm recently released 20 million search records of 658,000 AOL users.

In its complaint, the San Francisco-based advocacy group contended that the data release violated AOL's privacy policy and the Federal Trade Commission Act's bar on deceptive or unfair trade practices.

An AOL spokesman said the breach was a violation of internal policy forbidding disclosure of sensitive information but not of the company's privacy policy. "AOL did not provide any personally identifiable information to a third party," spokesman Andrew Weinstein said, referring to the privacy policy.

AOL apologized last week for what it called a "screw-up." It has removed the data from the Web site, but the data set, intended for academic research purposes, has been copied and circulated.

"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 more," said Marcia Hofmann, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The foundation submitted a confidential document to the FTC and AOL, listing 10 to 15 examples of searches that included information that could potentially identify a person, Hofmann said.

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