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AOL Tech Chief Steps Down

Someone had to take the blame.

Someone had to take the blame.

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Last week, Josie Swindler wrote in her FC Now post, “You Are What You Search,” about “AOL releasing the 36 million searches of 658,000 people.” The data was available as a download and included all searches from those users for a three month period this year, as well as what results they clicked on, and where those results appeared on a results page. Eventually AOL removed the data and apologized for its actions.

But sorry wasn’t enough. On August 9, The New York Times reported that user #4417749 had been identified as Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Ga.

So much for privacy, huh? The team that released the data made an unauthorized move while working on a project they hoped would benefit academic researchers. And though AOL removed the data, the information is still out there on the Web available to anyone who can perform a clever search.

Time Warner was going to have to deal with all the blowback–quickly.

AOL’s chief technology officer, Maureen Govern, who was responsible for the employees who released the private search records, has handed in her resignation and the researcher who released the data and a manager overseeing the search-data project have been fired.

Both the World Privacy Forum and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission asking for an investigation into AOL’s blunder. And bloggers, citizen journalists that they are, have called for a boycott of AOL.

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Will AOL ever be able to rebound from this fiasco? Will the firing of the employees involved solve the overall problem–the company’s handling of user information? It looks like Time Warner might need a solid public relations plan for this one, or they might end up having to face the rage of Lewis Black.

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About the author

Lynne d Johnson is a Content + Community Consultant developing content and community strategies that help brands better tell their stories and build better relationships with people toward driving brand awareness, loyalty, and purchase intent. She has been writing about tech and media since the Web 1.0 days, most recently about how the future of consumer interactions will be driven by augmented reality and wearable tech.

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