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AOL reviews privacy policy, sheds staff

Security breach has far-reaching consequences

AOL has announced that it's taking steps to prevent a similar security breach to the recent occasion in which subscriber search query results were posted online.

The company has also accepted the resignation of its CTO (chief technology officer). Maureen Govern "has decided to leave AOL effective immediately", said Jon Miller, president of AOL, in an email to employees that was provided to PC Advisor. Govern, who was named CTO in September 2005, oversaw the research division responsible for the data release. In addition, a researcher and a manager in the research area were fired, according to an AOL spokesman who declined to be named.

The web portal and internet service provider has come under criticism from internet privacy watchdogs for disclosing data on more than 2 million search queries made by 650,000 AOL subscribers during March and May. AOL researchers posted the data online even though it was intended only for use by other AOL researchers. No personally identifiable information about subscribers was revealed. AOL has since removed the data from the web.

In another email message to employees, Miller said an internal task force was being assembled to determine how long AOL should keep data, including search data, and to consider other improvements to the AOL Privacy Policy. The task force will be co-chaired by AOL vice chairman Ted Leonsis and general counsel Randy Boe.

Miller said AOL will take the following steps:

  • Impose additional restrictions on access to databases of subscriber information, regardless whether that data contains information identifying specific people.
  • Develop systems to ensure that sensitive information is not included in research databases.
  • Train employees at all levels about the need for sensitivity to privacy issues.

The breach occurred "because some employees did not exercise good judgment or review their proposal with our privacy team", Miller told employees.

Miller also announced that Govern’s predecessor, John McKinley, will return to the position of CTO. He was planning to leave the company at the end of the year.

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