NEW YORK -- AOL released the Internet search terms that more than 650,000 of its subscribers entered over a three-month period and admitted yesterday that what it intended as a gesture to researchers amounted to a privacy breach and a mistake.
Although AOL had substituted numeric IDs for the subscribers' real user names, the company acknowledged the search queries themselves may contain personally identifiable data.
For example, many users type their names to find out whether sites have dirt on them and then separately search for online mentions of their phone, credit card, or Social Security numbers. A few days later, they may search for pizzerias in their neighborhoods, revealing their locations, or for prescription drug prices, revealing their medical conditions. All those separate searches would be linked to the same ID.
``Search query data can contain the sum total of our work, interests, associations, desires, dreams, fantasies, and even darkest fears," said Lauren Weinstein, a privacy advocate.
The company apologized for the disclosure.
``This was a screw-up, and we're angry and upset about it," said Andrew Weinstein, an AOL spokesman. ``It was an innocent enough attempt to reach out to the academic community with new research tools, but it was obviously not appropriately vetted, and if it had been, it would have been stopped in an instant."
The disclosure comes as the Time Warner Inc. unit tries to increase use of its search services and other free, ad-supported features to offset a decline in subscriptions, a drop likely to accelerate with its recent decision to give away AOL.com e-mail accounts and software.
AOL ranks fourth in search, behind Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN, according to Nielsen/ NetRatings. Although AOL gets search results and keyword ads from Google, AOL is trying to get people to search directly on its own sites .
Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the technology watchdog group Center for Democracy and Technology, lauded AOL for responding quickly.
He added that search engines should use AOL's disclosure to reevaluate why they even retain such data.
``Old searches don't mean a lot to them and present a big risk to individuals," he said.