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by Jan Harold Brunvand
November 3, 1997
A recent piece in a local newspaper alerted me to one of the latest in an apparently unending supply of hysterical hoaxes that encourage paranoia and distrust of computers and those who support the use of them.
This latest story, the "AOL 4.0 Cookie" hoax, purports to be from a former employee of America Online (AOL), who "discovered" that a cookie function of the forthcoming Version 4.0 of the online service's software will allow AOL personnel to peep into any user's computer and the files contained therein.
Though the story is imaginative, it's also technically flawed. Cookies are benign data nuggets used by Web browsers. And it's a hoax. No such function exists, AOL executives have insisted.
I mention it here because such a scare story fits the conventional e-v-mail model. It tells a lengthy and technically inaccurate tale of some nefarious "back door" process the user a) won't understand and b) can't stop (The Hook) ... continues with all the awful things that evil AOL execs will be able to do with this back door (The Threat) ... then finishes with the typical pleading call to arms, er, e-mail (The Request). Curiously, this is really similar to the scare when Windows 95 came out; that rumor asserted that the installation program gathered info about the user's system, and uploaded it secretly to Microsoft through their new Microsoft Network (MSN) when Win95 was registered. And of course, it's also similar to a rumor about Prodigy from 1990 or so; supposedly, Prodigy had been fined by the good ol' U.S. Government for uploading information about users' computers while they were logged into the service.
This story even has a twist that I like. It asserts that AOL execs (who are "sworn to secrecy") will be peeking into users' systems. One imagines darkened rooms filled with demonic techies swooping down onto Ma and Pa's computer and rooting around for unlicensed copies of ViruScan or Duke Nukem.
If you're an AOL user, you have little to fear. The service will continue to offer you a steady flow of banal, inconsistent service, obnoxious advertising and "Aw, shucks" low-brow content, using an antiquated software model. But they won't be violating your system security. Not much.