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UK escapes AOL data screw-up

Any damage caused by the release of AOL's search log data appears to be restricted to America
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Written by Tom Espiner, Senior Reporter on

AOL UK users who feared their personal search details have been published on the Web can stop worrying.

AOL apologised on Monday for releasing search log data on subscribers that had been intended for use with the company's newly launched research site. It was initially unclear which customers were involved.

"I can confirm that the data only included US searches," an AOL UK spokeswoman told ZDNet UK on Wednesday.

The randomly selected data, which focused on 658,000 subscribers and was posted 12 days ago, was among the tools intended for use on the recently launched AOL Research site. But the Internet giant has since removed the search logs from public view.

"This was a screw-up, 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," AOL, a unit of Time Warner, said in an earlier statement.

"Although there was no personally identifiable data linked to these accounts, we're absolutely not defending this. It was a mistake, and we apologise. We've launched an internal investigation into what happened, and we are taking steps to ensure that this type of thing never happens again."

Although no individuals were explicitly linked with any data, privacy experts were still concerned that a collection of search terms could be used to identify a person.

"Sometimes what people are searching for may be an indicator of who they are and who they know," said Richard Smith, founder of Internet security and privacy consulting firm Boston Software Forensics.

In one search log, terms such as "how to tell your family you're a victim of incest", "casey middle school", "surgical help for depression", "can you adopt after a suicide attempt", "Fishman David Dr - 2.6 miles NE - 160 E 34th St, New York, 10016 - (212) 731-5345", "gynecology oncologists in new york city" and "how long will the swelling last after my tummy tuck" appeared in the set of data.

CNET News.com's Dawn Kawamoto and Elinor Mills contributed to this report.

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