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NYT: Researchers 'tempted' by AOL's user data but privacy concerns make them wary

Raw Story | August 23 2006

Many academic researchers are "tempted" by the user data released by America Online last month but but privacy concerns make them wary, according to an article slated for Wednesday's New York Times.

"When AOL researchers released three months' worth of users' query logs to a publicly accessible Web site late last month, Jon Kleinberg, a professor of computer science at Cornell, downloaded the data right away," Katie Hafner reports for the Times. "But when a firestorm over privacy breaches erupted, he decided against using it."

"Now it's sitting there, in cold storage," Kleinberg tells the Times. "The number of things it reveals about individual people seems much too much."

"In general, you don't want to do research on tainted data," said Kleinberg.

Excerpts from the Times article:

After the data was released for academic researchers like Kleinberg to work with, many were torn, loath to conduct research with it as they balanced a chronic thirst for useful data against concerns over individual privacy.

It is one of the frustrations of being an academic researcher in a world that has grown highly commercial. Data is everywhere, but there is precious little of it for university researchers to work with. Raw data about people's online behavior -- the grist for many an academic researcher's mill -- remains locked up inside large companies, accessible only to a subset of corporate researchers.

The AOL incident has set off a flurry of divergent opinions in the academic community over the appropriateness of using the data for academic research.

Some see the data as too valuable to withhold altogether. "One of the biggest problems is trying to get real data," said Christopher Manning, an assistant professor of computer science and linguistics at Stanford University.

Although the 650,000 AOL users were not personally identified in the data, the logs contained enough information to discern an individual's identity in some cases.



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