The AOL List: Faces of Evil

David Cassel (
Thu, 12 Jun 1997 17:36:34 -0700 (PDT)

			F a c e s   o f   E v i l


Authorities entered AOL's Dulles, Virginia headquarters May 30.  They
located an AOL lawyer named Andrew Lewis Singer--and arrested him. 

"He seemed normal," one of his former co-workers told the AOL List.  But
three days earlier, Singer had left the building and driven to a nearby
pond, where he paid an unexpected visit to a teenaged boy he'd met on
America Online.  The lawyer had created the screen name DCBOY83, and
corresponded with the teenager via e-mail, investigators told the
Washington Post. 

The AOL List confirmed the investigation with the Louden County Sheriffs
Department.  Press Information Officer Ed Pifer says that around 5 p.m. on
May 27, AOL's lawyer had met his on-line acquaintance in Ashburn Farm
-- then asked about an 11-year-old fishing across the lake.  He went over
to that boy, initiated a conversation -- and then committed a felony
offense which included putting his hands down the boy's pants.

Singer apparently returned to work at AOL the next day.  He continued
working for the company until he was arrested in his office that Friday. 

The next week authorities told the Washington Post they'd begun searching
the lawyer's computer records at America Online headquarters, as well as
the lawyer's apartment--and AOL's spokespeople confirmed that he had been
employed at America Online for nearly a year. 

Yet since the story broke in the Post, it's remained virtually unreported. 
The disturbing issue may spook the press--even though it corresponds with
a long series of AOL-only incidents involving child pornography.  The
Cincinnati Enquirer obtained FBI records in 1995 showing that more than
3,000 members were suspected violators of federal child pornography laws
(at a time when AOL had just 3 million subscribers.)  "Thousands of
subscribers to America Online have been viewing the illegal pictures and
downloading them..." the paper reported -- citing the FBI reports.  
( ) 

Even worse, child pornography was being downloaded directly from AOL's
file libraries.  Faulty screening allowed users to upload illegal images
directly into the shareware libraries -- and FBI records showed that
"during one 25-minute span when an illegal photograph was made
available...about 400 people nationwide downloaded the picture to their
computers."  Weeks later, the Associated Press determined that the FBI
"has too few agents to handle the thousands of search warrants that
authorities contemplated executing during a one-day crackdown."  Instead,
by September the FBI raided over 120 homes in over 60% of the nation's
federal districts -- culminating a two-year undercover probe into America
Online child pornography trading.  ( 

But in fact, the problem started in 1991.  "One subscriber...posed as a
13-year-old homosexual boy last month and received pictures of what appear
to be youngsters involved in sexual acts," Newsweek reported.  (12/23/91) 
The problem has become wide-spread enough for AOL to ban the character
strings "boy" in all AOL chat room names.  But even though a filter now
prevents any chat room from being created if its name contains the word
boy, ( it
appears to have had little impact.  In November--and as recently as March,
" 'Teen Pix' was still a chat room name..." one observer reports.  And so
was " 'Under 15,' with x's in between the letters..." 

That observer is Brian Smith--a Florida attorney.  In January he filed a
lawsuit against America Online on behalf of a woman whose 11-year-old son
appeared in commercial child pornography.  The suit contends that the
videotapes were sold in AOL's chat rooms -- and that AOL staffers
witnessed the transactions, but allowed them to continue.
(,1012,563,00.html)  "In
essence, AOL has created a home shopping network for pedophiles and child
pornographers," the lawsuit notes. ( 

When Smith publicly announced his suit, the AOL List contacted Barry
Crimmins--a children's rights activist who'd investigated AOL's child
pornography traders for six months in 1995, forwarding the information to
the FBI's investigators.  Asked if he'd ever seen AOL Guides witnessing
the trading of child pornography without intervening, Crimmins responded
"All the time."  How responsive was AOL?  "The most they ever did was
close the room.  Sometimes hours after I had complained to TOS about it."

Friday, Smith's suit goes to a crucial hearing on a motion filed by AOL. 
Reached in West Palm Beach, he offered this observation.  "It certainly
doesn't look good when AOL's defending a child pornography suit to have
one of their own employees, in-house, doing one of the very things they're
accused of aiding." 

Indeed.  When questioned by the Washington Post, an AOL spokesperson
"would not say whether Singer's status as an AOL employee gave him access
to information about subscribers, such as lists of children who use AOL
chat rooms meant only for young people."  AOL flatly denied subscriber
information was accessed after an AOL technical services employee pleaded
guilty to grand theft in 1996.  A multi-state investigation followed the
purchase of over $30,000 in computer equipment using stolen credit
information--and investigations led to the arrest and conviction of the
AOL employee who signed for the equipment.  (The Florida Times-Union also
reported that he then implicated two fellow AOL employees. 

But oddly, AOL's come under fire for doing something similar at the
corporate level.  "AOL snoops into its subscribers' incomes and details of
their children," another news story announced this week -- citing a
watchdog report that AOL is "selling the information aggressively through
a broker to third parties..."

Privacy Times contends that AOL is selling advertisers address lists which
"include lists of 248,000 children between the ages of 0-5, 354,000
children between the ages of 6-11 and 1,084,000 between the ages of
12-17."  And the price is high.  "These lists sell for $110 per thousand." 

But AOL also determines their members' income using data obtained from
other services, Privacy Times reports -- a policy which Elizabeth Zitrin,
deputy leader for AOL's ACLU Live forum, considered "scary".  AOL's
spokespeople refused to provide Privacy Times with figures on their
profitability, but in a 1994 Community Update, Steve Case acknowledged
AOL's motives.  ("Why are we doing this?  Primarily because it will be a
source of additional revenue for us...")  Privacy Times' Evan Hendricks
notes that as a direct result of the policy, "AOL members increasingly are
targeted by junk mailers." 

A group of hackers struck back.  "Behind those computer monitors the staff
is laughing at you," one told the AOL List -- so they installed a tell-all
hacker web page...on AOL's PrimeHost service!  "Making it on PrimeHost was
an idea we had from the beginning," they told the AOL List, "to try and
show how pitiful AOL's dedication to security is."  AOL didn't discover
the page for two months (until a rival hacker tipped them off). But the
same day AOL shut the page, the hackers sneaked a change-of-address page
into its previous location!  ( ) 
"Just another great example of poor AOL security," the page's author
commented the next day.  Safely ensconced in their new location, they
proceeded to display sensitive in-house information, including the phone
number for Tatiana Gau, AOL's Vice President of Integrity Assurance--along
with a picture. (

But AOL continues their pose of responsibility.  The same day the
Washington Post reported the sexual assault charges filed against AOL's
lawyer, Steve Case announced that AOL would host a conference about
children's safety.  Conceding that the omnipresence of the on-line life
means "we need to take our civic responsibilities even more seriously,"
Case opines that children's safety is "one of the first issues that
requires urgent attention," adding that "the reality is that we are
confronting these issues every day..." 

In fact, AOL's confronting other issues as well.  An AOL web page
recruiting for the Ku Klux Klan went off-line this morning--but it was
accompanied by thousands of other pages.  " is
unavailable," read an in-house system status report, stating that the
problem started at 1 a.m. Thursday morning.  "Estimated time of repair: 
2:45 p.m."  (  When the pages
came on-line, the Klan page returned as well.  AOL's commitment to civic
responsibility rang hollow to an African-American who'd received taunting
e-mail from the page's author the night before.  It's message?  "A victory
for the Klan is a victory for all of America." 


AOL users pursuing minors looks like a wide-spread problem -- and they'll
apparently go to great lengths, one user reports.  A teenager who
investigated AOL's "Teen Chat" chat area told the AOL List that "Within 20
minutes, someone offered me free tickets from New York City to Florida..." 

        David Cassel
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