Three months of detailed search data aggregated by AOL for roughly 657,000 of its 20+ million users were found distributed on the internet. AOL claims that it only stores one month of search data on its users but the roughly 657,000 records dating back to three months were part of a special group used by its internal researchers to enhance AOL's search algorithms.
AOL promptly issued apologies and is trying to salvage the situation, but the data is already circulating the internet and despite AOL's system of maintaining anonymity, assigning a number instead of using the users' names, the veil of privacy has been penetrated.In one prime example highlighted by the New York Times, user No. 4417749 was readily identified to be 62-year old Thelma Arnold of Lilburn Georgia.
This incident has drawn much attention as it is a realization of the fears and concerns voiced by many Internet Privacy and Internet Rights activists who contend that data aggregated by search providers in particular violates the privacy and many of the rights internet users expect to have.
Though whether Google refused to share its data because of an interest in user privacy or protection of its own is questionable. Part of Google's argument against sharing the data was that it would expose its trade secrets (ie. search algorithms).
In both the Google vs Justice Department incident and the current AOL debacle, we see that the aggregation of data stems around the respective search portals' core business, that of search and enhancing their proprietary algorithms. Viewed in this light, it is unlikely that any of the major search players will, or can afford to, cease collecting data.
Of course enhancing search algorithms is only the tip of the iceberg, as applications for targeted marketing, social research, legal action, and almost limitless other uses exist; many of which are certainly lucrative to the possessor of such data.