AOL Watch ("The AOL List"): Hero

David Cassel (
Thu, 15 Jan 1998 03:03:21 -0800 (PST)

			      H  e  r  o  


A military court hearing revolved around details AOL apparently divulged
illegally about one of their subscribers. 

AOL's spokeswoman claimed that "There is nothing in the transcript to
suggest we gave out private information."  
(,4,17974,00.html )  But in fact, there's no ambiguity. 

"I called AOL and talked to a gentleman named Owen at Tech Services," the
transcript states.  "I said that I am the third party in receipt of a fax
and wanted to confirm the profile sheet, who it belonged to." 

"They said, it came from Hawaii and that it was 'Timothy R. McVeigh' in
the billing." 

AOL told the press they were confident that their policy of requiring a
court order before revealing a subscriber's name were followed -- but the
transcript indicates otherwise. 

Did he indicate that he was not able to do so unless provided a court
order or legal process serving AOL with a subpoena? 


Did you have a subpoena or court order? 


The witness later states that when they asked the support staffer for the
subscriber's name, "He said not a problem." 

"Federal law prohibits the release of any personal information about
subscribers without valid legal authority," AOL's spokeswoman told PC
World.  ( )

Privacy advocates are furious.  "Every AOL subscriber needs to be
concerned about this incident," David Sobel, the Legal Counsel for the
Electronic Privacy Information Center, told C|Net.  "AOL appears to have
violated its much-touted privacy policy and destroyed a subscriber's
life."  (,4,17974,00.html )  Though this
Timothy McVeigh isn't accused of bombing a federal building in Oklahoma --
he is accused of being a homosexual serving in the Navy.  One story noted
that "In the past, he has dated women and been engaged to be married." 
( )  "I
have not in the past nor currently made any statements of homosexuality or
sexual orientation," he told one interviewer.  "What the Navy is going by
is the word 'gay' in an AOL profile."  
( ) 

His profile was discovered when sending e-mail to a civilian coordinating
the toy drive for the children of his shipmates in September.  In the
RealAudio interview last Thursday, the sailor, who has served in the Navy
for 17 years, told what happened when the profile was linked to his
real-life name.  "My submarine pulled in...and I was summoned to the
squadron III legal office...  When I got there...the staff legal officer
sat me down, and she said this isn't very pleasant, but I need to read you
your rights..."  "If you think your screen name is secure on AOL, you
might wanna think twice,"  the show's interviewer commented.  
( ) 

Ironically, the show was created by PlanetOut -- an AOL content partner. 
"We're really concerned about this at PlanetOut," Community Manager Ira
Wing told AOL Watch, adding "but given AOL's track record with privacy
issues in the past, I'm certain they'll be vindicated."  Wing sees at
least one clear culprit, if not more.  "The U.S. Navy is in direct
violation of the oft-forgotten 'Don't Pursue' clause by even asking AOL to
reveal this sort of information," he observed, "and although unlikely, if
AOL did reveal this information they are also in violation of privacy laws
as well as their own stated privacy policy."  But AOL's spokeswoman told
PC World Monday they had no plans to investigate the privacy breach. 
( )  "I
would like to know what AOL intends to do about this situation other than
deny that it didn't happen..." the Electronic Privacy Information Center's
David Sobel complained. 

Apparently stung by the negative publicity, AOL reversed their position
within 24 hours.  Feeding the press the meaningless assurance that they
felt "confident" their policies were followed, AOL nonetheless scrambled
to remind customer service staffers not to divulge customer names,
launched an investigation, and conceded that "the Navy may have
circumvented the established get information about our
members."  (,4,18077,00.html )  
AOL's later statements were modified to include a disclaimer that they 
were still investigating the incident.  (E.g., Ann Brackbill, AOL Networks
senior vice president for communications, told Reuters Tuesday that "We
feel very confident, while we're still looking into it, that our policies
were followed in this case.")

But accountability from the staffer is problematic.  "At least one source
says that he left AOL's employ some time ago," AOL's PlanetOut reports,
"and has yet to be found by them or anyone else."
( )
It's not surprising.  "The starting pay rate for AOL's reps barely breaks
$7 an hour,"  Jacksonville freelance writer Amir Abdur-Rashid reported in
September.  "Not many hang around more than a year."  To cut costs, AOL
converted all full-time employees in their Florida call center to
part-time status last June, one former employee told AOL Watch.  
( )  This allowed AOL to pay fewer
benefits -- but, as Abdur-Rashid notes, "dissatisfaction over pay results
in a dramatic turnover rate." 

Unfortunately, this makes quality control difficult.  "We were always
playing around with their system," one former sub-contractor confided. 
The staffers liked to access personal information for celebrities,
including Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman.  "They had his address
and phone number..."  And one favorite trick involved re-activating
cancelled accounts.  ("They'd reactivate a customer's account to do bad
stuff with,"  another staffer confirmed.)  The practice was widespread. 
"I had an 18-year-old as a manager...he showed me how to do it!"  And some
staff-members were even younger. "They had one guy that was 16.  There
were a couple of them that were 17, 18..." 

Age wasn't the only factor impeding the quality of customer support.  The
firm's screening procedures were laughable, according to one Texas
applicant.  ( )  "Although I was
never asked any of these questions, my psychic interviewer gave me a 3 for
each one on the confidential interview form."  The firm's rationale soon
became clear. "Although they now had 150 people handling customer service
for AOL, their contract called for 400 within the next few weeks..." 

Very little has changed since then.  Wednesday an AOL technical support
staffer concedes that "when I got the job, I knew very little about
computers, but they were willing to train me -- and at $8 per hour, it's
considerably easier than delivering pizza."

Policies like these create a legion of staffers with access to 10 million
credit card numbers and home addresses -- and a very real chance that
they'll be divulged inappropriately.  "I suspect that a lot of this goes
on quietly without people ever knowing that their information is being
disclosed," EPIC's lawyer told PC World
( )  "Here
we finally have a case that appears very documentable...for AOL to just
brush it off and say 'That's against our policy so it didn't happen', is
not very convincing." 

Indeed.  Another subscriber told PC World that their name was also
revealed by AOL.  His conclusion:  "AOL says that only the user profiles
you create is public information, but it's just not true." 
( )  Other
leaks are inadvertent.  One AOL Watch subscriber who'd attempted to cancel
his account reported that "The guy there could not find my account -- but
gave me the names, addresses, and screen names of everyone with a name
similar to mine (four others) -- and then argued with me that those
people must be me since I was not in the computer." But serious leaks
appear commonplace, too.  One technology columnist told AOL Watch they
were able to verify the name behind a screen name by pretending to be the
subscriber and saying they needed to re-activate their account -- and one
AOL Watch reader was able to retrieve the social security number, screen
names, and home address for a reporter on a New York newspaper within 24

Some AOL staffers blame the leaks on AOL's bean-counter mentality.  "I'm
not surprised that Owen failed to verify the required information before
linking Mr. McVeigh's name with the screen name," one AOL Watch reader
commented Wednesday.  "When I worked at AOL, the workload was increasing,
and management was becoming more and more vicious about lowering the time
we were allowed to spend on the phone with a member....  The rush and the
stress got to the point that it was easy to forget one thing or another
thing and to cut corners to speed the person off the phone."  Nothing's
changed since 1995.  "The emphasis was more on passing calls through than
it was dealing with customers," a former staffer complained. 

Since December, McVeigh had been contacting AOL members who included the
word "gay" in their profiles asking for their support.  
( )  "His
grassroots campaign has netted at least 1,900 letters of support, he said,
from 37 states and as far away as South Africa, Scotland and Japan," the
New York Times reported Friday.  Later that same day, AOL cancelled
McVeigh's account, designating his attempts to gather support "a chain
letter." ( )  
Ironically, just two days earlier, Steve Case vowed in his monthly update
to strengthen "the spirit of community on AOL". 

This situation resolved itself quickly.  "Prodigy moved into the gap
January 12," PlanetOut reports, "offering him an Internet account free for
life, which he accepted." 

Antagonizing McVeigh may not be wise.  "Do you have recourse...against AOL
for destroying your life?" PlanetOut's interviewer asked him. 

"I plan to investigate that," he answered.

"Don't Ask, Don't AOL," one San Francisco newspaper quipped.  But McVeigh
may also experience fewer problems on Prodigy.  One week into 1998, AOL
experienced their first nationwide outage, C|Net reported 
(,4,17908,00.html )  -- and seven days
later, problems returned.  ("The system is temporarily unavailable.
Please try again in 15 minutes," AOL warned subscribers yesterday.
"That's the message we get here when AOL goes out for half a day at a
time," one U.K. user complained.)  In a letter to Steve Case, a U.S.
subscriber complained that "Once again, you have made AOL 'temporarily'
unavailable on a business day!"  ("Don't miss out!" AOL's exit screen
announced. "Last week to enter for a chance to win a BMW. Keyword:
Celebrity Contest" -- but when subscribers tried to reach the feature, a
pop-up window warned "We're sorry, you do not have access to this area.")

Other members of the military service have also been affected by AOL's
problems.  "We haven't been able to get on the web from AOL for about a
week now," one Marine sergeant complained in October.  Even reloading the
software didn't solve the problem. "If I was just an average user, this
could be easily dismissed," he told AOL Watch, "but I am a microcomputer
repairman for the United States Marine Corps, so I am pretty good at
isolating software and/or hardware conflicts."  And there were more
problems when web access returned. "Lately, we've been getting a lot of
busy signals..." 

Ironically, in 1995 AOL divulged private information about the military,
according to the San Jose Mercury News (7/11/95).  The captain of the
mission that rescued downed pilot Scott O'Grady from Bosnia had sent an
e-mail message from Italy to his Air Force buddies.  (It contained
information one Pentagon official described as "more detailed and more
in-depth than what intelligence sources were providing under classified
covers.")  The message found its way to the host of one of AOL's military
boards, who was told not to post it (though it had been posted on some
private bulletin boards).  But when another user posted the message, AOL
refused to delete it. 

Still, Timothy McVeigh found a way past AOL's policies and glitches.  He
used the free web-site service at GeoCities to create a page publicizing
his case.  (A subscriber who created their web page on AOL wasn't so
lucky.  "I just tried to access my site one day and found that it had been
wiped.  They could have asked me to remove some objectionable material
before pulling the plug, but no..."
McVeigh's efforts at publicizing his case have already drawn some
high-profile support.  "The military services, like other governmental
entities, must comply with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act's
requirements..." reads a letter sent by the counsel for the Electronic
Privacy Information Center.  "Any other result would make a mockery of
federal privacy law and subject the American people to intrusive and
unlawful governmental surveillance."  
( )  Outrage
trickled down to the grass roots.  "This story reeks of a witch hunt," one
subscriber commented on a law school discussion list. "I'm amazed that
NCIS investigators have absolutely nothing better to do with their time."

"I'm also cancelling my AOL account," they added.  So are other
subscribers -- and at least one of AOL's Community Leaders.  Humorously,
AOL's Terms of Service states that protecting your privacy "is very
important to AOL, Inc."  One subscriber told AOL Watch, "I guess we can
all look forward to another round of Case-O-Grams telling us how secure
our private information on AOL is." 

McVeigh urges readers to mail President Clinton ( 
as well as members of Congress, the Secretary of the Navy, and the
Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Submarine Force.  "I have been trained
to be a leader, fair and by the book," a window on his site announces,
"and if the Navy wants to throw the book and fairness out, I will still go
by the book, and in human fairness, lead the fight against them for the
benefit of all." 

"Senior chief petty officer McVeigh's distinctive accomplishments,
unrelenting perseverance, and steadfast devotion of duty reflect great
credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the
United States Naval Service," reads one commendation McVeigh received
from the Navy -- less than a year ago.
( )  Yet McVeigh's
discharge becomes effective today.  As the song "Hero" plays in the
background, his site tells readers "The best way for you to help is to
make yourself heard!" ( ) 

"Too many people go through life not saying or standing up for what they
really feel." 


Earlier this week, clicking the logo on AOL's welcome screen revealed a
disturbing parable about the company's privacy policies.  The icon
displayed a Dilbert cartoon from "Greet Street" in which a computer tells
the cartoon character "The software has found your credit card number and
is placing orders for new products it thinks you need...please wait." 

     David Cassel
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