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Published in TidBITS 60.
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Less-Than Prodigal

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When I asked Nisus's version of Webster's Electronic Thesaurus for a definition of "prodigy," it defined a prodigy as something that causes fascinated astonishment or admiration. Admiration is out, but Prodigy certainly causes fascinated astonishment. The latest slime to ooze from Prodigy (gee, am I being negative?) affects only people using IBM-PC clones, but that doesn't lessen the offense.

Here's the deal. Prodigy keeps a file on your hard disk called STAGE.DAT that keeps track of which Prodigy screens you've used so that the software doesn't have to download them each time you go to that screen. Not unreasonable at all. Apparently, if you peek inside STAGE.DAT, you'll find lots of bits and pieces of information that are unrelated to anything that Prodigy should ever touch with its money-grubbing electronic fingers. People have found things like proprietary source code, confidential client records, tax information, and other good stuff that you probably wouldn't tell your shrink, much less a company accused of snuffling around in theoretically-private email. To be fair on that account, the company claims that it merely has the computer scan for key terms to prevent "bad" mail from causing trouble for it since it's responsible for the contents of the service. I'm not sure if electronic snuffling is any better than human snuffling, but that's another issue.

I've seen conflicting reports from different people who've tried experiments with the Prodigy software to see what actually happens with the STAGE.DAT file. Several people reported finding information from their hard disks in their STAGE.DAT files. Another person reported no unusual information in his STAGE.DAT and noted that his modem spent approximately 95% of the time connected receiving information, thus making a Prodigy conspiracy to steal hard disk contents unlikely. However, Prodigy has admitted that it knows that its software could possibly copy random bits of information into the STAGE.DAT file and that it would be theoretically possible to upload that information to its central computers. However, Brian Ek, Prodigy's spokesman, says that Prodigy has never done this, has no intention of doing so, and would have to spend a lot of time and money if it wanted to do so.

If you ignore Prodigy's tainted history and think about the issue, it's unlikely that Prodigy uploads information from subscribers' hard disks. First of all, Prodigy would have to spend an incredible amount of time and money collating and referencing the spotty information, which is equally as likely to be hexadecimal code as ASCII text. Second, Prodigy has primarily 1200 and 2400 bips lines, which means that subscribers would notice their modems performing a significant amount of unexplained transmitting. Now stop ignoring Prodigy's history and look at the L.A. County District Attorney's current lawsuit against it for deceptive trade practices. The third reason Prodigy probably isn't making off with the contents of your hard disk is that such a practice would open it to serious legal attack from groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility when Prodigy is already under legal fire.

A more likely explanation for the hubbub is that Prodigy did a bad job programming its software so that the STAGE.DAT file includes bits of other information. The problem with this explanation is that it is apparently quite difficult to circumvent the normal operating system precautions that allow one file to have bits of others included in it. The Prodigy software does capture the contents of memory at installation and record that in STAGE.DAT, so perhaps that accounts for the inappropriate contents of the file. No reports of the Prodigy software damaging files have come in, so the error doesn't seem directly malicious. Nonetheless, given the possibilities, it is a mark against Prodigy that they didn't guard more closely to protect themselves from such accusations. It's a bit like the phone company having the capability (which they don't) to look through your file drawers when you're having a conversation on the phone. The phone company guards closely against any charges that it listens in on telephone conversations because wiretapping is a federal offense. It is technologically possible for the phone company to keep the receiver in the phone turned on all the time so it could listen in to all conversations in the house, but even the merest hint of such a policy would bring the legal roof down.

In these days of heightened (but not unreasonable) sensitivity to personal privacy, any company that ventures into a grey area in which violations of privacy are possible should tread very carefully. Lotus found this out the hard way, investing ten million dollars in MarketPlace:Households and MarketPlace:Business before over 30,000 complaints, many from people on electronic services, convinced the company to cancel the mailing list CD-ROMs. With the possibility of this electronic burglary, Prodigy sits smack in the middle of the grey area with its connections and hyper-advertising. It has even advertised mailing lists culled from its subscriber lists in direct marketing magazines. Even if the company itself does not pursue a policy of systematic information theft, leaving it as an opportunity for an unscrupulous employee is negligent at best. Prodigy touts itself as a 50's family-style service, but if the company doesn't watch out, it could come instead to represent the grotesque offspring of Big Brother and a direct mail company.

Information from:
A. Padgett Peterson -- padgett%tccslr.dnet@uvs1.orl.mmc.com
Bill Seurer -- seurer@rchland.vnet.ibm.com
John Viescas -- c-johnv@microsoft.uucp
Bill J Biesty -- wjb@edsr.UUCP
Chuq Von Rospach -- chuq@Apple.COM
Mary Culnan -- mculnan@guvax.georgetown.edu
Mark A. Emanuele -- overlf!emanuele@kb2ear.ampr.org
Raymond Chen -- raymond@math.berkeley.edu
ONG ENG TENG -- ong@d.cs.okstate.edu
Don S Gladden -- CTuna@cup.portal.com
Joe Wasik -- jcwasik@PacBell.COM
Joe Collins -- joec@Morgan.COM
Paul Gauthier -- gauthier@ug.cs.dal.ca
and many others who forwarded me the series of postings

Related articles:
PC WEEK -- 06-May-91, Vol. 8, #18, pg. 119

 

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