America Online has primed a stealth beta release of its AIM instant messaging client. Build 5.5.3590 modifies the way that AIM handles the installation of third-party add-ons and adds support for the WeatherBug desktop weather application.
Prior production releases of AIM drew criticism for forcibly installing Wild Tangent's gaming technology, which some privacy advocates consider to be spyware.
Wild Tangent's Web driver installs an auto-updater that is enabled by default. Once installed on a host system, the autoupdater will then periodically phone home, transmitting machine specific data derived from a user's hardware and software environment back to Wild Tangent.
Wild Tangent says it uses this data to determine how its software is being used and may share it with third parties. Several popular anti-spyware utilities including Lavasoft's Ad-aware identify and remove the product.
A statement on the product's Web site claims, "WeatherBug does not monitor, collect data or 'spy' on its user base." What's more, WeatherBug says it requires its partners to adhere to the same philosophy.
When asked to comment, an AOL spokesperson acknowledged consumer privacy concerns and stated that the AIM client was modified to remedy outstanding privacy issues spawned by the practices of third party vendors who partner with AOL.
Free software sniffs out phishy Web sites
Internet service provider (ISP) EarthLink will launch a new anti-fraud tool called ScamBlocker on April 19, 2004. ScamBlocker is a toolbar that will work with Internet browsers; it will be available to all online users, not just EarthLink customers, and is designed to warn against the growing number of online 'phishing' scams. Such scams use 'spoofed' websites that look like the sites of legitimate businesses to trick unsuspecting users into divulging financial information. The new tool will warn web surfers if they are visiting a site on EarthLink's phishing black list. The list will only contain known fraud sites, so users will remain at risk until a scam site has been reported to EarthLink. According to new figures from the Anti-Phishing Working Group, the number of phishing scams increased by 43% from February to March 2004.