AOL Answers Privacy Concerns in AIM Beta

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.

"AOL is setting a example for other companies that bundle third-party software or services. Too often, consumers install unwanted programs, or even spyware, that piggyback on mainstream applications. AOL's new approach gives consumers more choice and may better help them understand about how installing one program might include others," said Joe Wilcox, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research.

Following a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which lifted post merger restriction placed upon Time Warner, America Online has been beefing up its array of real-time communication products. Version 5.5 of the AIM client includes support for multiple screen names, the ability to log into the service from more than one location, video conferencing, as well as encryption.

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