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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE AVERAGE JOE GETS
UNSAFE E-MAIL FROM AOL


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

April 30, 1999 -- Did you know that E-mail isn't safe? I know it ain't safe because America Online told me so.

Now look, this is not a screed about AOL. I like America Online. I've been fooling with personal computers since 1978, so I'm not a newbie who doesn't know better. And I have an ISP and several non-AOL E-mail addresses, so it's not like I don't know better.

In fact, this isn't really about AOL at all. It's about stupendous technologies warped and belittled by the blind, robotic technocrats who control them. It's about metaphoric and literal "average Joes" like me who are forced to jump through digital hoops just to accommodate the technology that was created to serve us. It's about living with the technology that propeller heads are brilliant enough to create, but not human enough to understand.

Anyway, about unsafe E-mail. A couple of weeks ago my American Express bill came and I did what every $10,000-a-month business-travel customer does: I threw the bill in a pile and waited until a day before the payment was due to look at it.

When I finally checked my bill, I found my standard array of hotel charges, airline tickets, computer-supply invoices, restaurant tabs, newspaper subscriptions--and a $58 charge from America Online.

Since I'm on an unlimited access, $10-a-month plan with AOL, I'm immediately thinking $58 is a little steep. I'm thinking perhaps there's a billing error. I'm thinking I'd better check out why a $10-a-month charge ballooned to $58.

So I log onto America Online to check my usage. I go to the billing area, which offers me the option of looking at this month's bill or last month's bill. I click the button for last's month bill and--voila!--wrong bill.

Well, not so much the wrong bill as the wrong month's bill. AOL's "last month" is not American Express's "last month." My credit-card bill actually reflected AOL's charge from two months ago. And America Online, in its we-only-take-credit-cards-but-we're-not-smart-enough-to-know-credit-card-bills-sometimes-lag-two-months-behind arrogance, won't show usage from two months back. That information is somehow lost in the mists of the master server of the universe.

I'm just a trifle miffed at this. Not a lot miffed. Just a bit. I'm thinking AOL should really understand that I might need to examine my usage when my bill actually arrives.

But I'm a get-along kind of guy. So I go to an online, real-time, type-to-a-human-being function America Online maintains to mollify users who are slightly miffed by billing issues.

I get in the electronic queue, wait my turn, and ask my question: Can you please send me my usage details from two months back so I can reconcile the bill that I have to pay tomorrow?

No problem, says the chat-board lady. We'll mail you a copy of your usage and it'll arrive in 5-to-7 business days.

Mail? AOL, home of 20-something-million-E-mailers, is gonna snail-mail me? How absurd--and, by the way, besides the point since I need to see my usage today, before I write my check to American Express.

I ask the chat-board lady what I think is an eminently logical question given the fact that this is 1999 and I'm dealing with the nation's premier online service.

"Can't you please just E-mail me my usage detail?" I type.

No, comes the reply, it's against AOL policy to send customers E-mails detailing their usage. The only way to get account details is via the United States Postal Service.

Now this, to an average Joe like me, seems Kafkaesque. Here's the 800-pound gorilla of the Internet telling me I can't get my usage information via E-mail.

Since I won't take Kafka for an answer, I type back to the chat-board lady the stark details. I have to pay my American Express bill today and, since your charge is almost six times my normal monthly fee, I really do want you to E-MAIL ME my usage details RIGHT NOW!

Well, chat-board-lady-cum-Kafka-character is getting huffy herself. Don't I understand, she types, that she can't E-mail me my usage data because "E-mail isn't safe."

This, to switch literary illusions, is where we go through the looking glass.

For the next 15 minutes, chat-board lady continues to type me messages explaining that the sensitive nature of my usage details makes it unsafe for E-mailing. Some hacker could look at my usage. I might be a hacker myself. Never mind that no hacker on the planet would care about--or have occasion to misuse--the details of how many times I called AOL and on what number I called them, chat-board lady is sticking to company policy.

Which, believe it or not, is that E-mail is unsafe.

No longer in my get-along mode, I call AOL's billing center. I wait 13 minutes. I get a human being--and the same answer: that AOL doesn't consider E-mail a safe communications channel over which to send details of my bill.

I talk to a supervisor and get the same answer: E-mail isn't safe. I'll get a hard copy of my billing detail in 5-to-7 business days and that's the best AOL can do.

Let me understand this, I say to the supervisor: America Online signed me up as a customer when I gave them my American Express number online, but E-mail is an unsafe medium for transmission of the details of a bill?

Well, says the supervisor, that's not how AOL thinks of it.

Of course not, because AOL is full of robogeeks trained not to think.

Minutes later, I am informing the supervisor's supervisor: If I don't get an E-mail of my usage detail, I have no choice but to contest the $58 charge with American Express. That means AOL will get a chargeback, then spend much more than $58 proving to American Express that its initial charge was correct.

Nothing moves the supervisor's supervisor. America Online policy is clear, she says: E-mail is unsafe and usage details must be shipped by snail mail.

So I call American Express and contest the charge. "No problem," says American Express. "Deduct the $58 from your bill."

Hours later, I signed on to America Online to gather the afternoon's E-mail. In my queue I found an E-mail from the chat-board lady. I opened the E-mail--and guess what I found? The usage detail I had requested and been repeatedly told could not possibly and would never ever be sent via E-mail. (Over the next four days, I also got eight separate copies of my usage detail from America Online via the United States Postal Service.)

I eventually E-mailed the chat-board lady and asked her why she had sent the E-mail of my usage detail after refusing to do so.

"It was a courtesy to you," she replied in an E-mail the next day.

This column originally appeared at Byte.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.