23 August 2006

The Web
Business Today

AOL CTO resigns in privacy flop

AOL Chief Technology Officer Maureen Govern resigned on Monday and two other employees were fired in the online release of personal information on hundreds of thousands of subscribers, a crisis that sparked condemnation from privacy advocates and calls for government regulation.
In addition, AOL, a unit of Time Warner Inc., instituted new rules for the handling of subscribers’ personal information, according to employee memos issued by Jonathan Miller, chairman and chief executive of AOL. The company made the two memos available to the media. In one memo, Miller said Govern, who was hired as CTO in September, had “decided to leave AOL effective immediately.” “I want to thank Maureen for her hard work during her time with AOL, and we wish her all the best as she pursues new opportunities,” Miller said.
John McKinley, president of AOL Technologies, took over the job of CTO. Govern had headed the division that released on the Web the search queries of 658,000 subscribers. Some of the queries contained personal information, including addresses, telephone numbers and social security numbers. The data file was posted for the purpose of academic research. Leaving the company with Govern were a researcher and manager responsible for the research, a person famililar with the matter said. Both employees were fired. The incident rekindled debate over the need for government regulation to protect the privacy of people who use search engines. Even though the names of subscribers were replaced with numbers in order to hide their identity, the search data was sufficient enough for the New York Times to find and interview people on the list. AOL had apologized for the release, and acknowledged that the data included enough personal information to identify some of the subscribers. The information was taken down after only a couple of days, but that was enough time for the data to be downloaded and posted on other Web sites. Miller said the company was taking additional steps to “ensure this type of incident never happens again.” The four-part plan included additional restrictions on access to databases containing search data and other potentially sensitive subscriber information. In addition, the company was evaluating and developing new systems to keep sensitive information out of research databases. The company also created a task force led by Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis and general counsel Randy Boe to develop new practices to ensure privacy. The panel would be looking at how long the company should save search data, and make recommendations on how AOL can improve its privacy policies. “”The task force mandate is very broad,” the source said. Finally, AOL launched programs to educate employees at all levels on how to protect sensitive information. Following the security snafu, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco privacy group, asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate AOL, claiming the company not only broke its own policies, but also violated FTC regulations. The EFF also called on AOL to notify subscribers whose privacy had been compromised. On Monday, the group had guarded support for Govern’s decision to resign. “It’s a sign that AOL is taking this breach very seriously, but we’d like to see follow through with a permanent policy change,” EFF spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke said. The group also maintained its call for stronger privacy laws related to the storing of personal data by Internet companies. “The data retention policies of the major search engines are due for a review in Congress,” Jeschke said. The AOL incident was expected to help privacy activists pressuring Congress to adopt restrictions on the handling of search data by Internet companies. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill this year that would prohibit companies from storing certain types of search data. Supporters hope the AOL incident will spur legislators to pass the bill when they return from summer break.

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