AOL fires tech chief after data ‘screw-up’

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AOL has fired its chief technology officer and two other employees following the inadvertent release this month of search records of more than 650,000 of the internet company’s members, a move AOL itself called a “screw-up” that has stoked a heated debate about internet privacy.

Maureen Govern, who became technology chief last September, has left the company and her position has been temporarily taken by John McKinley, her predecessor. The researcher who released the data – that was aimed at academics researching search patterns but was widely copied across the web – and the researcher’s supervisor have also been fired, according to people familiar with the matter.

In a memo to employees, Jonathan Miller, AOL’s chief executive, said on Monday that he was also taking additional steps to ensure “this type of incident” never happened again.

These include the creation of a task force to look at issues such as how long AOL should save data, as well as restrictions on access to databases and education and awareness programmes for employees.

“We can’t write a good judgment policy – but we can all follow the policies and procedures we already have in place,” Mr Miller said.

The inadvertent release of the search histories, which did not include people’s names but were identifiable in many cases due to the frequency of searches that include people’s names, caused an internet firestorm, with many people unaware that such data was saved and used by companies.

The revelations also came at a sensitive time for AOL, the internet group owned by Time Warner attempting to shift its business away from its declining internet connection business to one based on building up a large online audience in order to capture a bigger slice of the fast-growing online advertising market.

The internet group is expected to cut at least 5,000 from its payroll by the end of the year in an effort to slash costs.

Kevin Bankston, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online free speech and privacy group, said some search companies were continuing to resist calls to be more open about their policies for storing, sorting and distributing user search queries.

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