Wired Strategies Email Article

Email Article/Alert January 8, 1998    

Date: Thu, 08 Jan 1998 12:56:59 -0500 
From: John Aravosis
Subject: Is AOL violating your privacy? 

Is America Online violating your privacy? 

If you're an AOL user and you think your screen name is secure, you might 
want to check out << http://www.planetout.com/gloradio/index.html > and 
listen to an amazing RealAudio radio interview with one unfortunate 
17-year highly-decorated veteran of the US Navy who says AOL basically 
outed him to the US Navy, resulting in his imminent discharge from the 
military. 

Call this one: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't AOL." 

According to the report, the US Navy had seen an AOL "member profile" that 
they thought belonged to a gay US serviceman.  But neither the screen 
name, nor the rest of the member's profile, provided the member's full 
real name -- they couldn't prove it was his.  According to the sworn 
testimony of US Navy staff legalman Joseph M. Kaiser, he called AOL and 
immediately got the full real name and state of residence of the AOL 
member who owned the profile in question. 

That unfortunate AOL member was Navy submariner Timothy R. McVeigh (yes, 
it's his real name, and no, he's no relation to the Oklahoma City bomber). 
As a result of the information the Navy swears they received from AOL -- 
remember, this was McVeigh's personal civilian email account -- they are 
now discharging McVeigh after an exemplary and much-decorated 17-year 
service record. 

Excerpts from the official court record, dated November 7, 1997: 
US Navy staff legalman Kaiser: "I called AOL and talked to a gentleman 
named Owen at Tech Services.  I said that I am the third party in receipt 
of a fax and wanted to confirm the [member] profile sheet, who it belonged 
to.  They said it came from Hawaii and that it was 'Timothy R. McVeigh' on 
the billing." 

.... 
McVeigh's defense attorney: "He gave you information that links [AOL] 
members screen names with the member's actual name?  Sounds like that's 
what you have done." 

US Navy staff legalman Kaiser: "Yes, that is correct." 

[The transcript can be found at 
<< http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/9241/KAIS.HTML >]. 
.... 

If the Navy's sworn testimony is true -- and if it's not, they've 
committed perjury in order to fabricate the only evidence they offered at 
the discharge hearing -- then AOL provided the full real name and state of 
residence of an AOL member to a stranger on the phone.  This could pose an 
enormous threat to the civil liberties and privacy rights of any of AOL's 
millions of members who might prefer that strangers phoning AOL not have 
access to their full real name and state of residence.  Imagine the 
implications of such a breach of privacy for a woman living alone, a man 
who might prefer his employer not see his member profile, or a 12-year old 
child going online for the first time.  If anyone saw their profiles and 
wanted to track them down... 

While AOL's privacy policy seems to explicitly prohibit the revelation of 
such member information, the Navy has testified under oath that such a 
revelation did in fact occur. 

If you're concerned about the information the US Government, your 
employer, or any stranger can obtain about you from AOL, perhaps you might 
want to contact AOL and ask them to confirm in writing exactly what 
happened in the McVeigh case, and more importantly, what their policy 
really is with regards to the sharing of confidential member information 
with strangers. 

*** You can contact AOL's president Steve Case via AOL's Terms of Service 
office at <TOSGeneral@aol.com

In addition, if this issue raises more serious privacy concerns for you -- 
not just about whether AOL is secure or not, but also about what the US 
Government is doing snooping around US citizens' private email accounts -- 
feel free to email the following and tell them that you heard about this 
case and you're concerned: 

*** President Clinton, Navy News, Newsweek, Time Magazine, USA Today, and NBC Nightly News -- you can simply cut and paste the following addresses into the "TO" section of your email: 
president@whitehouse.gov , navnews@mediacen.navy.mil , letters@newsweek.com , timeletter@aol.com , usatoday@clark.net , nightly@nbc.com 

And finally, if you know of anyone else who might find this case of 
interest -- friends who use AOL, colleagues in the media, people who might 
have some clout with the Department of Defense or the White House, or 
anyone else who might want to get involved and help out, please pass this 
message on to them. 

Tim gets kicked out on January 16, and could use all the help he can get. 
Thanks! 
 
PS For more info, feel free to check out Tim's Web site at 
<< http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/9241/ >.  The site includes a number 
of documents, including the transcript where the Navy swears under oath 
that they got the member information from AOL 
<< http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/9241/KAIS.HTML >. (The pages can be 
hard to download, you might have to hit "reload" or "refresh" a few 
times). 

###

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