Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against AOL Over Search Data Release

TechCrunch reports in Suit filed against AOL; seeks to block search history storage that a class action lawsuit has been filed against AOL seeking $1,000 in damages for each person whose search records were released last month.

The release involved 658,000 individuals, so that's potentially a $658 million bill, if the case succeeds. It's even more if some of those people are California-based, since the case seeks $4,000 per California individual, according to TechCrunch.

Of course, not all of these people actually can be identified. To date, exactly one person was positively identified. The New York Times guessed at her identity, and she herself confirmed it. No doubt, others can also be determined, but not every one of the people involved will be. So when the suit says:

The search queries themselves contain information that identify AOL members who made each search.

That's only correct for a subset of the total users. Similarly, the lawsuit states:

The Member Search Data holds sensitive financial information about the AOL members, including but not limited to names, street addresses, phone numbers, credit card number, social security numbers, financial account numbers, passwords and usernames.

True, in some cases. Not all of them. In fact, probably not true for the majority of them.

It will be interesting to see if the court case ultimately finds that everyone should receive payment, given the potential harm they suffered, or if it will only pay to those who prove in some way they actually were personally identifiable or had personal information released in some way because of AOL's actions. Perhaps there will be a compromise between the two, if the case succeeds.

You'll find the text of the lawsuit here. Three AOL users are named, though no evidence I see in the suit suggests that any of them were actually personally identified in some way by the release. That might come in future filings or existing filings also submitted to the court, of course. A release about the suit from the law firm filing it is here. The Associated Press also has coverage in 3 AOL Subscribers Sue Over Data Release.

Aside from cash payouts, the case also wants AOL to enforce a license prohibiting commercial and non-research user of the data, plus wants the material removed from internet search engines (which means, really, getting it off the internet itself). It also seeks to prevent AOL from storing any type of web search data and to destroy any already in its possession.