October 14, 2005 19:47 | Social / Technology

You say hello, I say goodbye...

Well, it's happened.

The American-based internet giant, AOL, wholly-owned by Time-Warner, has formed a working partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to permit unlimited surveillance of the millions of AOL online members, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“AOL works ‘closely with the DHS’ to supply information on any AOL customer and allows agents from these entities ‘free and unfettered’ access to AOL Hq at Dulles, VA for the purpose of ‘watching over and keeping surveillance ’ on the millions of AOL customers,’ according to the report.

So that's it. As soon as I can set up a reliable Jabber server on one of my machines I am ditching all commercial IM services: AIM, ICQ, MSN, GTalk.

Bye bye.

(p.s.: rumors are flying of a Google takeover of AOL Time Warner. ”The Matrix“ indeed.)

1- Andrew Weinstein

That story is a hoax. To our knowledge, the Department of Commerce has issued no such report, the media outlet credited for the article (The Financial Reporter) does not appear to exist, nor does the reporter who supposedly wrote it.

More important, the claims in the mythical "report" are totally false. AOL's privacy policy, a part of our contract with members, requires that we keep member communications confidential except in response to a valid "legal process (for example, a court order, search warrant or subpoena)". We do not provide "unlimited surveillance" or "free and unfettered access" to member information to DHS or any other government agencies. http://about.aol.com/aolnetwork/mem_policy

Andrew Weinstein,
America Online, Inc.

Hey, wow, thanks Andrew. While I am relieved and thankful for this news, I still have issues, not with AOL necessarily, but with centralized communications. IM evolved int his way where a handful of players provide 99% of the service when it needn't be that way.

Having thought about all this after posting I realized it was hasty of me to want to cut it all off. More sensible would be to maintain what I have but to be more dilligent about how I connect with certain people.

Oddly enough, I was just thinking about P2P IM just as this comment came in and wondered why the P2P thing still hasn't taken off as one might imagine it would. I see two reasons: 1- no business model (which is a must in a capitalist economic system of course) and 2- no one wants to be responsible for decentralizing anything. Everybody somehow inherently wants to control or be controlled. And recognized (by authenticating to some central registry/society). Being alive is a lonely affair. Being human means wanting to not be alone.

Thanks again for the "offical word". :)

If you really want to improve the service and protect the privacy of your customers. It would be very good to give full cryptography of communications in your client and servers.

IMHO, it's the only way that would guarantee "member communications confidential".

I see in your policy statement:
"encryption and authentication systems"

Could you give more details about it. I see third party software for it, but no built-in things.
I may be wrong.

Back in the late Mesozoic era, there was a chat program called "talk" that worked on most Unix machines. If I was logged in to a Unix box and so were you, I could send you a message by typing "talk boris@yourserver.com" and if you chose to accept it, we'd be soon talking in a nifty little split screen in our terminals.
Of course, back then, people actually logged in to their servers to do their stuff, but now people are on laptops or workstations behind firewalls and routers on private networks and wouldn't consider using "talk" because of all the security risks it must incur.
But that original mechanism is exactly how it should work now. I should be able to use my chat client, whatever one it happens to be, to chat you at a standard address of your choosing, exactly the same as you get and send your email, from any machine with any client you like.
Remember back when email was in this broken state? If you were in an office that had CCmail, you couldn't send to people outside the company who used something else. This was fine for closed little networks back then, because email was seen as a sort of in-house affair. Eventually, all of these systems had to adapt to Internet standards that predated them all.

Don't worry, Boris. One day, you'll either run a chat server or rent an account on one from an ISP you trust and you'll be able to chat and voice and swap files and videoconference with anyone on any similar server, regardless of who gets paid for the service.
Just like email.
Maybe it'll be Jabber, maybe "talk" in a new incarnation. Maybe it'll be something else, but that's how it'll work.

5- Brian Harring

Mr. Finestein claims that there is no such report issued by the Department of Commerce that states that AOL is cheerfully working with DHS to spy on its customers. Finestein also claims, according to his comments, that there is no such publication in England and no such writer. What other kind of response can one expect from an AOL executive? If Mr. Weinsten made such a flat statement, it might be interesting to see if he has proof. After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and I personally would like proof, not bombast. This is potentially a very serious matter and it needs factual exposition, not excuses. Brian Harring