AOL CTO Resigns in Wake of Privacy Breach

Internal memos disclose that Maureen Govern has resigned as CTO and will be replaced; the company is taking steps to ensure user privacy.

Maureen Govern, chief technology officer at AOL, resigned from the company on Aug. 21, following a disclosure that AOL accidentally released keyword search data for roughly 658,000 anonymous users.

Govern, who oversaw the division responsible for the data release, will be replaced by John McKinley, who had previously held the job, according to an internal company e-mail written by CEO Jon Miller.

eWEEK obtained a copy of the memo along with a second document describing a plan to better secure AOLs users personal information.

"I want to thank Maureen for her hard work during her time with AOL, and we wish her all the best as she pursues new opportunities," Miller wrote in one memo.

A spokesperson for AOL, based in Dulles, Va., declined to comment on the memos.

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The announcement that the information about the searches, estimated to equal as many as 20 million queries, had been compromised, was a major embarrassment to AOL, the Internet division of Time Warner.

In the second memo, Miller wrote that the trust between AOLs users and the company has been eroded.

"After the great lengths weve taken to build our members trust and be an industry leader on privacy, it was disheartening to see so much good work destroyed by a single act," Miller wrote.

Govern had been named CTO in September 2005, replacing McKinley, who became head of AOLs digital services.

In addition to Govern, the researcher who posted the data and a supervisor were "discharged" from the company, according to a source familiar with AOLs internal matters. The names of those two employees were not available.

In one memo, Miller placed the disclosure blame on employees who "did not exercise good judgment or review their proposal with our privacy team."

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The memo went on to discuss four different policy steps the company will be taking to ensure that searches stay private. Ted Leonsis, vice chairman of AOL, and Randy Boe, general counsel, will oversee the committee.

Other changes will include:

  • New restrictions on access to databases containing search data.
  • The development of new systems to ensure that sensitive information is not included in research databases.
  • New education and awareness training for employees.

The data, which has been mirrored on multiple Web sites, represented a random selection of searches conducted from March to May 2006.

The announcement that users personal data had been leaked led privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation to file a complaint against AOL with the Federal Trade Commission.

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