AOL 4.0 Spawn of Satan? Folks, never believe anything you read on the Internet, particularly in heavily forwarded email, unless you can verify it personally. That tongue-in-cheek hyperbole aside, we’ve seen a bunch of copies of a letter purportedly from a now-fired AOL staffer who, with the help of his cohorts, discovered the AOL 4.0 software currently in development has a secret feature enabling AOL management to retrieve any information they want from a user’s hard drive whenever that user is logged into AOL.
Here’s a lesson in prima facie logic – this claim is absurd. Even if AOL had the stupid, legally dangerous, company-destroying idea of doing this and had, in fact, implemented such a data sucker, it would still be impossible to be get away with it.
As the world’s largest commercial online service, there’s a hypersensitivity to any change AOL might make. Remember the massive outcry when AOL tried to change the usage agreement to allow the sales of subscribers’ phone numbers to telemarketers? If AOL was insane enough to implement such a feature, those who watch AOL’s every move would discover it quickly, either by decompiling the software (illegal in some cases, and time-consuming to analyze, but easy); or by using monitoring tools to watch the data their machines send to AOL.
Also, think of the bandwidth problems. For AOL to retrieve any amount of useful material from someone’s hard drive, they would have to take over that person’s connection. Given the relatively slow speed of modems, that’s unlikely to go unnoticed – if your modem’s transmit light is pegged on and your hard drive is grinding constantly, you might become suspicious.
A similar libel was spread about Prodigy some years ago. Users investigating a file that the Prodigy software stored on their machine found bits and pieces of files from all over their hard drive. This was alarming, until the truth came out: it was just some poor programming, not an attempt to hijack data. TidBITS covered that issue back in TidBITS-060 in 1991; you might find that coverage interesting in relation to the current scare. [GF]