AOL CTO resigns in wake of search privacy scandal

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III
UPDATE 22 August 2006 10:30 am ET

New York (NY) - AOL confirmed this morning that its chief technology officer, Maureen Govern, has resigned, along with two other senior staff members in the technology research department. The departures follow news that the company provided public access to private search information on as many as 658,000 AOL users who thought their searches were anonymous.

Search query terms sampled from AOL users reportedly included items such as Social Security numbers and private addresses, which industrious individuals could conceivably trace back to their points of origin. An internal memo later circulated by AOL and obtained by The New York Times quotes AOL CEO Jonathan Miller as essentially condemning the actions of researchers in the company's technology division, saying, "This incident took place because some employees did not exercise good judgment or review their proposal with our privacy team." The memo goes on to imply that there could be repercussions for other AOL employees.

Though AOL staffers initially characterized the release of the database as inadvertent, notices attached to the database warned individuals of sexually explicit language therein, stating, "Please understand that the data represents REAL WORLD USERS, un-edited and randomly sampled, and that AOL is not the author of this data." The very existence of the warning indicates that AOL was aware it was being released intentionally.

News of the privacy "leak" was carried by The New York Times two weeks ago, in a series of articles that led to broadcast media exposure on the major newscasts. In one Times story, a private citizen was discovered by the paper mainly based on an analysis of the AOL queries this user tended to pose. While shocked to discover herself discovered, if you will, she shared her dismay with the Times, and allowed her identity to be revealed for the story.

In response to the news, AOL quickly released a mea culpa from spokesperson Andrew Weinstein. "This was a screw up," Weinstein wrote, "and we're angry and upset about it. It was an innocent enough attempt to reach out to the academic community with new research tools, but it was obviously not appropriately vetted, and if it had been, it would have been stopped in an instant. Although there was no personally-identifiable data linked to these accounts, we're absolutely not defending this. It was a mistake, and we apologize."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation was among several groups filing complaints with the US Federal Trade Commission last week. "AOL failed to employ proper security measures or take precautions to protect personal consumer information from public disclosure, which caused or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers," begins the conclusion of the complaint. "The personal consumer information disclosed by AOL may, in some cases, be combined with other publicly available data to identify individual consumers or expose them to the risk of identity theft. This injury is not offset by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition, and is not reasonably avoidable by consumers. Furthermore, this practice runs counter to public policy. This practice was, and is, an unfair act or practice."

Govern's departure comes at the worst possible time for the company. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn has reportedly increased his stake in parent company Time Warner to 1.5%, and has set up a $1 billion fund to increase that stake even further, as Icahn pressures members of the Time Warner board to spin off or sell off AOL. At the same time, the company is trying to redefine itself by offering old members their mail accounts back, and stop charging for premium content services, with the intent of building an advertiser base. And a restructuring will result in the loss of 5,000 jobs at the company.

Meanwhile, as the EFF's complaint ominously noted, all this news doesn't appear to have much impact on chief rival Google. Citing a published story, the complaint quotes Google CEO Eric Schmidt as responding to the AOL privacy leak news as saying, "We are reasonably satisfied . . . that this sort of thing would not happen at Google, although you can never say never."

AOL has not yet responded to TG Daily's request for comment.