AOL Ousts Technology Chief

AOL IM instant messenger computer chat AOL/CBS

Three America Online employees, including AOL's chief technology officer, are workplace casualties of a recent search-data breach that infuriated some members.

Two employees were fired and its chief technology officer, Maureen Govern, has left the company following a privacy breach in which the Internet search terms of more than 650,000 subscribers were publicly released.

Govern will be replaced on an interim basis by John McKinley, who had held that position before becoming AOL's president for digital services. The change takes effect immediately, according to a memo AOL Chief Executive Jonathan Miller sent to employees on Monday.

AOL says the search-data disclosure was a mistake.

The researcher who released the data and that employee's direct supervisor were fired, said one person familiar with the company's decisions. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because release of personnel information was not authorized, would not say whether Govern's departure was voluntary.

Earlier in August, AOL released the Internet search terms that more than 650,000 of its subscribers entered over a three-month period and has admitted that what it originally 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 numeric 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," AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said. "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."

He could not say whether anyone has been disciplined, saying an internal investigation was continuing.

Comments

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Watch Now

New Android App

For your Android phone and tablet, download the FREE redesigned app, featuring CBSN, live 24/7 news.

Download
The all new
CBS News App for Android® for iPad® for iPhone®
Fully redesigned. Featuring CBSN, 24/7 live news. Get the App