SAN FRANCISCO – Hoping to trigger a federal investigation, a civil liberties group accused AOL of breaking a promise to protect its subscribers' privacy when the Time Warner Inc. (TWX) subsidiary recently released millions of Internet search requests — data that touched upon everything from Social Security numbers to murder plots.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint Monday, a week after AOL apologized for posting about 19 million search requests made by about 658,000 subscribers during a three-month period ending in May.
The files containing the search requests were publicly accessible for 10 days before AOL finally removed the information, giving people plenty of time to fetch copies that continue to circulate on the Internet.
In its 11-page complaint, the foundation asserts the AOL breach was serious enough to merit an FTC investigation in hopes of winning an order that would require AOL to provide more details about the gaffe.
The San Francisco-based foundation also wants FTC to order AOL to notify all subscribers whose search requests were revealed and pay for a year's protection from a credit monitoring service.
The complaint alleges AOL's unauthorized release of the information, which included creepy search requests like "how to kill your wife," represents an unfair or deceptive trade practice.
The foundation said the released material also included 175 searches containing Social Security numbers, which can provide a stepping stone to identity theft.
While declining to comment on Monday's complaint, AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said the company doesn't have a list of the subscribers affected by the breach. The search requests were broken down into groups identified by numbers, with all names removed.
But AOL has acknowledged some of the search requests contained enough personal data to identify the people behind the queries.
"We are conducting our own internal investigation to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again," Weinstein said.
An FTC spokeswoman on Monday declined to say whether the agency intends to open an investigation. With few exceptions, the FTC doesn't confirm its investigations.
Another consumer rights group, the World Privacy Forum, plans to file an FTC complaint against AOL later this week, according to Pam Dixon, the group's executive director.
The calls for a federal inquiry threaten to make it more difficult for AOL to move past its self-described "screw up," just as management strives to attract more Web surfers to generate more advertising revenue.