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AOL in trouble with privacy groups

Two complaints filed this week with FTC

The World Privacy Forum has filed a complaint with the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) in the US against AOL, saying the company violated its own privacy policy by releasing the search records from hundreds of thousands of its members.

The World Privacy Forum, a privacy advocacy group, asked the FTC to investigate AOL's release of search records this year, to fine the company a "substantial" amount of money and to order it to provide free credit counseling to any members who had their personal data exposed in the release of the search records.

The World Privacy Forum's complaint, filed on Wednesday, came two days after the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), a privacy and civil liberties advocacy group, filed a similar complaint with the FTC.

AOL's release of search queries is "in violation of consumer expectations for the maintenance, use, and disclosure of personal information", the World Privacy Forum said in its complaint.

AOL declined to comment on the EFF complaint, but said it couldn't notify the affected users because there is no way for it to identify the accounts involved.

The EFF and World Privacy Forum complaints came after the disclosure last week that AOL had made available on its AOL Research website about 20 million search records from about 658,000 of its members. AOL didn't disclose the members' names, but it categorised each person's records with a unique number, making it possible to see what each individual searched for.

The firm acknowledged the release was a lapse in judgement and removed the data file from its website, but many sites published the records. Some of the records included credit card, telephone and Social Security numbers, as well as birth dates, full names and addresses.

The release of the search records "comprise a pattern of personal data activities contravening the AOL privacy policy", the World Privacy Forum said in its complaint.

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