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AIM+ creators delete "spyware" feature

Software maker Big-O plans to ax the feature after complaints that a program violated users' privacy by sending information about their online identity back to a Big-O server.

The creator of an add-on program for AOL Time Warner's Instant Messenger plans to eradicate a component that phones home after critics called the feature "spyware."

The recent decision comes after some users of Big-O Software's AIM+ program--which adds chat logging, ad removal and other features to AIM--complained that the program violated their privacy by sending information about their online identity back to a Big-O server.

"The fact that AIM+ returns information to the Big-O Software servers has never been hidden from the users," Mark Swiss, beta tester and community organizer for Big-O Software, said last Friday in a response to consumers' complaints on the company's online forum.

After listing several reasons that the feature had been included in the software, he concluded by saying, "As a final response to the concerns of AIM+ users, in the next version of AIM+, the statistic gathering code will be completely removed."

The debate over AIM+ reflected a larger debate surrounding the surreptitious collection of information by free online software. Kazaa, Grokster and LimeWire have all been found to have functions that forward personal information about the consumer and the use of the program to their creators.

Programmed by Ryan Evans, who graduated this year from the University of Michigan's computer science program, the software modifies AOL's instant messaging application, adding features such as chat logging and removing annoyances such as ads in the messenger window.

The program has quite a following, with the latest version garnering 186,000 downloads in less than a month, according to Evans and Swiss' Web site.

However, earlier this year, in response to complaints about a feature called cloning that allowed people to sign on using multiple nicknames, the duo added a function that sends the Web server information, including the Internet address of the person and their nickname.

"Specifically, we wanted to know what percentage of AIM+ users were having this problem to the extent that they chose to disable cloning from the AIM+ Preferences menu," Swiss said in the online posting.

The amount of information proved too much for their server, Swiss said. Soon, Big-O had to ignore the information or be swamped by the data.

"The cost of gathering these statistics has been enormous and most definitely not worthwhile," Swiss said. "Although AIM+ is currently set up to send this information, the Big-O Software servers have been ignoring this data for quite some time now."

The response seemed to please consumers who had originally taken exception to the surreptitious collection. "Thanks again for responding to this quickly," one person said over the weekend. "You are not evil as I previously expected."

However, most consumers seemed not to care, or didn't know, about the information-leakage issue, Evans said. "We haven't seen downloads slow because of this," he said.

He added that he didn't think that the information-gathering component would cause that much hullabaloo, since many other online applications do it as well. In any event, it was never intended to be a permanent part of the program.

"I never really considered keeping it around," he said.