Ulanoff: No More Reason Left to Trust AOL

AOL has broken a public Internet trust, and I wonder if there's any way to get it back.

After spending years telling users that it collects demographically based information for, well, demographic purposes, a handful of nabobs inside the AOL sanctuary decided to turn a horizontal profile of information from millions of users into a vertical one that suddenly sees AOL-ers as unique.

So what does this mean to you?

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Imagine the AOL search-results data as one vast melting pot of collected information, with search queries for you, me, and millions of others literally mixed together.

AOL and its partners can scoop out related information to learn more about what people are searching for, in general, online.

It can also pick one search for one person and have a result include not only the relevant online information but also related advertising and marketing info that appears just for you.

Now imagine that AOL takes that vat of information and pours it through a strainer. The information comes streaming out the other side, through millions of holes, neatly organized by who searches for what.

That goulash of information is now neatly stacked into unique towers of data, each of which tell a story about one person. Traverse a tower and you learn the story of one person's life.

This is a disaster.

AOL did take down the search data for the nearly three-quarters of a million AOL search users after bloggers blasted them, but the genie is officially out of the bottle. The trust is gone.

When AOL originally posted the data, it did remove the names of the 650,000 users, but based on the information that is in there, do you really think anyone needs a name?

According to one account, a reporter was able to use the data for one of these "anonymous" search lists to figure out who was doing the searching.

How is that possible? Simple triangulation of data should do the trick, making it possible to get the user's name, home address, phone, and place of work.

To understand the enormity of what these renegade AOL employees did, you have to understand how turning a look at the searches millions do into the searches you do tells the story of your life.

When I search, I look for things of interest to me that relate to my home, job, family, friends, purchases, entertainment, and, well, me (yes, you know I do the occasional vanity search).

AOL might as well have listed the contents of these users' wallets, or their hard drives.

How did this happen? Well, AOL is not a stupid organization. It sometimes does stupid — even crass — things (I have a whole other column percolating about its AIM Welcome Web page and how outrageous some of the double entendres are — but I digress).

Yet, AOL is also a huge company that often acts like it has no idea what its various parts are doing. It's also currently in disarray. Recently, 5,000 employees got their walking papers.

And AOL is trying to reinvent itself as Google. That won't work if it keeps breaking Google's somewhat laughable first rule of "Do no evil."

MSN, Yahoo!, and especially Google will likely want to send AOL a big, sarcastic "thank you."

Each one of these companies collects the same kind of search data. They all use it to target ads and content, but they have never divulged individual identities or passed along "personal" data unless you opt in.

AOL essentially just broke that rule.

What's to say that it won't happen again with one of the other big boys? There's already enormous distrust revolving around what Google collects. Google promises that we have nothing to worry about.

Now they have to explain that you have nothing to worry about unless you're an AOL customer.

I doubt anyone will be buying it.

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