The new version of America Online's software isn't just clunky and slow, it'll also allow a secret cadre of AOL executives to download and explore the contents of your hard drive. That's what an anonymous E-mail now circulating through the Internet would have you believe, anyway.
The E-mail is a hoax, as announced by a number of technical mistakes in its language and the melodramatic way it tells its story. But among the flurries of Internet hoaxes that occasionally bombard the Net, the new message, titled "Important information regarding AOL 4.0!!!" stands out as a piece of creative writing.
The E-mail would have users believe that AOL is launching a plot to gain access to 10 million computer owners' hard drives. But those familiar with the ways of the Internet recognize the letter as the latest in a long line of pranks designed to draw on computer users' fear of the unknown.
"It's just another of the bogus E-mails," said programmer Steve Atkins, a long-time follower of Internet hoaxes. "Corporate security departments spend a lot of time stopping people from sending out these warnings ... it's the warnings that are the real problem."
The message tells a story of intrigue, corporate corruption and paranoia worthy of an episode of the "X-Files." According to the anonymous sender, who identifies himself only as "Ex AOL," he and another AOL employee discovered a strange bug while developing the new AOL software last year. Upon investigating the software code, "Ex AOL" and his partner found that the new software implants a "cookie" into the user's hard drive, allowing for some disturbing breaches of privacy.
"With the new version, any time you are signed on to AOL, any top AOL executive, any AOL worker, who has been sworn to secrecy regarding this feature, can go into your hard drive and retrieve any piece of information that they so desire. Billing, download records, E-mail, directories, personal documents, programs, financial information, scanned images, etc. ...," the E-mailer wrote.
Atkins noted that the message's tale about corporate greed and invasion of privacy draws on actual recent events to add to its sense of realism. "Two things seem to be confused there. One is cookies ... a Web site can send your browser a cookie, which is just a piece of information; it can't read anything else ... but they've been criticized because some advertisers use them to track people's viewing habits. But they're relatively benign."
The other element, the breach of privacy, is similar to recent security bugs found in Internet Explorer and Netscape, which in theory would allow a Web page to read filenames on an Internet user's computer.
Such incidents add to the public's concerns about Internet security, and hoax E-mails draw on that fear in their invented warnings, according to Atkins.
The most famous hoax was the GoodTimes E-mail, which purported to warn users about a virus, called Good Times, that masqueraded as an E-mail message. According to the fake warning, if one downloaded an E-mail with the word "good times" in its subject heading, they would unleash a program that would instantly erase the contents of their hard drives. In fact, such a virus is impossible.
Before word spread of the hoax, however, the E-mail had circulated to millions of users, and is still around today. Atkins said "Good Times" had turned up at his own company only three months ago.
For a hoax, the AOL warning is unusually detailed in its back-story, adding layers of pathos to its simple premise.
The anonymous E-mailer describes how, after trying to raise a revolt within AOL, he and the other employees in the know were fired. They then tried to post the "top secret" information on three separate Web servers, which he says were taken down within two days. And the hardships didn't end there for the embattled anti-conspirators.
"Unemployed, with one of us going through a divorce (me) and another who is about to undergo treatment for Cancer (sic), our combined financial situation is not currently enough to release any sort or (sic) article," the E-mailer wrote.
Typically for an E-mail hoax, the message ends with an exhortation to spread the word about the dangers it pretends to warn about.
"We figured our last hope to reveal this madness before it effects the people was starting something similar to a chain letter, this letter you are reading," the E-mail read.