AOL search data leak

In 2006, the internet company AOL released a large amount of user search requests to the public. AOL did not identify users in the report, but personally identifiable information was present in many of the queries. This allowed some users to be identified by their search queries, prominently a woman named Thelma Arnold.


On August 4, 2006, AOL Research, headed by Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, released a compressed text file on one of its websites containing twenty million search keywords for over 650,000 users over a 3-month period intended for research purposes. AOL deleted the search data on their site by August 7, but not before it had been mirrored and distributed on the Internet.

AOL did not identify users in the report; however, personally identifiable information was present in many of the queries. As the queries were attributed by AOL to particular user numerically identified accounts, an individual could be identified and matched to their account and search history by such information.[1] The New York Times was able to locate an individual from the released and anonymized search records by cross referencing them with phonebook listings.[2] Consequently, the ethical implications of using this data for research are under debate.[3][4]

AOL acknowledged it was a mistake and removed the data; however, the removal was too late. The data was redistributed by others and can still be downloaded from mirror sites.[5][6]

In January 2007, Business 2.0 Magazine on CNNMoney ranked the release of the search data #57 in a segment called "101 Dumbest Moments in Business."[7]


In September 2006, a class action lawsuit was filed against AOL in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The lawsuit accuses AOL of violating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and of fraudulent and deceptive business practices, among other claims, and seeks at least $5,000 for every person whose search data was exposed.[8] The case was settled in 2013.[9]

Notable usersEdit

Although the searchers were only identified by a numeric ID, some people's search results have become notable for various reasons.

Thelma ArnoldEdit

Through clues revealed in the search queries, The New York Times successfully uncovered the identities of several searchers. With her permission, they exposed user #4417749 as Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow from Lilburn, Georgia.[10] This privacy breach was widely reported, and led to the resignation of AOL's CTO, Maureen Govern, on August 21, 2006. The media quoted an insider as saying that two employees had been fired: the researcher who released the data, and his immediate supervisor, who reported to Govern.[11][12]

User 927Edit

One product of the AOL scandal was the proliferation of blog entries examining the exposed data. Certain users' search logs were identified as interesting, humorous, disturbing, or dangerous.[13][14]

Consumer watchdog website The Consumerist posted a blog entry by editor Ben Popken identifying the anonymous user number 927[15] as having an especially bizarre and macabre search history, ranging from butterfly orchids and the band Fall Out Boy,[16] to search terms relating to child pornography and zoophilia.[17] The blog posting has since been viewed nearly 4,000 times and referenced on a number of other high-profile sites.[18] In addition to sparking the interest of the Internet community, User 927 inspired a theatrical production, written by Katharine Clark Gray in Philadelphia. The play, also named User 927, has since been cited on several of the same blogs that originally discovered the real user's existence.[19]

User 711391Edit

A series of movies on the web site Minimovies called I Love Alaska puts voice and imagery to User 711391 which the authors have labeled as "an episodic documentary".[20]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Michael Arrington (August 6, 2006). "AOL proudly releases massive amounts of user search data". TechCrunch. Retrieved August 7, 2006.
  2. ^ Barbaro, Michael; Zeller Jr, Tom (August 9, 2006). "A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749". The New York Times. Retrieved April 6, 2018.
  3. ^ Katie Hafner (August 23, 2006). "Tempting Data, Privacy Concerns; Researchers Yearn To Use AOL Logs, But They Hesitate". The New York Times. Retrieved September 13, 2006.
  4. ^ Nate Anderson (August 23, 2006). "The ethics of using AOL search data". Ars Technica. Archived from the original on September 2, 2006. Retrieved September 13, 2006.
  5. ^ Dawn Kawamoto; Elinor Mills (August 7, 2006). "AOL apologizes for release of user search data". CNET. Retrieved August 12, 2013.
  6. ^ "AOL search data mirrors". Archived from the original on October 2, 2012. Retrieved August 12, 2013.
  7. ^ "101 Dumbest Moments in Business: Full list". CNN.
  8. ^ Elinor Mills (September 25, 2006). "AOL sued over Web search data release". CNET. Retrieved August 12, 2013.
  9. ^
  10. ^ "A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749". Retrieved August 12, 2013.
  11. ^ Li, Kenneth (August 21, 2006). "AOL chief technology officer resigns: sources". Reuters. Archived from the original on June 1, 2007.
  12. ^ AOL executive quits after posting of search data – International Herald Tribune Archived November 26, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Frind, Markus (July 7, 2006). "AOL Search Data Shows Users Planning to commit Murder". The Paradigm Shift. Archived from the original (blog) on June 5, 2008. Retrieved June 7, 2008.
  14. ^ Johnny, Titanium (August 13, 2006). "AOL Search Log Special, Part 1" (blog). Retrieved January 10, 2013.
  15. ^ AOL user #927
  16. ^
  17. ^ Popken, Ben (July 7, 2006). "AOL User 927 Illuminated" (blog). The Consumerist. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
  18. ^ "Leaked AOL search logs take stage in new play" (blog). CNet News Blog. CNET. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
  19. ^ Popken, Ben (April 29, 2008). "AOL User 927, The Theatrical Production". The Consumerist. Archived from the original (blog) on April 1, 2018. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
  20. ^ "I Love Alaska - Lernert Engelberts & Sander Plug". Submarinechannel. January 2009.

External linksEdit