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15 worst Internet privacy scandals of all time

Carolyn Duffy Marsan | Jan. 27, 2012
In honor of National Data Privacy Day this Saturday, Jan. 28, we've put together a list of the 15 worst Internet privacy scandals of all time.

In August 2006, AOL released a file containing 20 million search keywords used by 650,000 of its users over a three-month period. The file was supposed to be anonymous data available for research purposes, but personally identifiable information was available in many of the searches making it possible to identify an individual and their search history. AOL admitted it was a mistake to release the data and removed it from its Web site after three days, but by then the data had been mirrored at sites across the Internet. AOL's CTO Maureen Govern quit two weeks later. In September 2006, a class action lawsuit was filed - that's still lingering in California courts -- against AOL demanding $5,000 per user.

4. Google Street View

In May 2007, Google added its Street View feature to Google Maps, and it has been battling privacy complaints, paying fines and facing audits ever since. Google Street View provides panoramic views of streets gathered by webcams. It prompted privacy worries for showing men leaving strip clubs, people entering adult bookstores, and people picking up prostitutes, among other activities. Google allows users to flag worrisome images for removal and added a blurring feature for faces and license plates. Nonetheless, Street Views has run into privacy battles with Switzerland, France, Belgium, Germany and South Korea, to name a few countries. France fined Google the equivalent of $142,000 in March 2011 related to Street Views, but an August 2011 review by the U.K. government gave Google positive marks for improving the privacy of Street View. Meanwhile, Google must undergo regular privacy audits mandated by the FTC for the next 20 years as the result of a settlement over improper privacy disclosures in its now-defunct Buzz social media service.

5. Hotmail Hot Mess

One of the biggest privacy scandals in terms of scale involved Microsoft's Hotmail free e-mail service. In October 2009, Microsoft urged hundreds of millions of its Hotmail users to change their passwords due to a privacy breach. Microsoft said it discovered that users' details from 10,000 e-mail accounts were posted on the Web site as the result of a likely phishing scheme. Microsoft urged users of email accounts ending in, and to begin changing their passwords every 90 days.

6. Webcamgate

A Pennsylvania school district that used built-in Webcams to monitor the use of several thousand Apple laptops that it provided to students for their use at home ran afoul of online privacy issues and was forced to pay up. The school district admitted it had over 56,000 photos and screen grabs gathered by the Webcams and security software installed on the laptops. These photos were taken without the knowledge or consent of the students, including in their bedrooms and in various stages of undress. In April 2010, high school sophomore Blake Robbins filed a class action lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District for invasion of privacy. In October 2010, the school district agreed to pay $610,000 to settle two lawsuits related to the incident.


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