AOL users face data access concerns

America Online has admitted that some of its members were able to gain access to online financial portfolios of other members.

America Online has admitted that some of its members were able to gain access to online financial portfolios of other members.

But the internet service provider played down the incident saying no personal identifying information such as usernames or credit card numbers was ever compromised.

"We have heard from a handful of members who brought it to our attention," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said. "We have taken some immediate corrective steps to address the issue. Although there is no more information, we are working very diligently to provide a resolution to it as soon as possible." 

Among those upset by what he called a security breach is lawyer and accountant Michael Szkaradek. He said the incident occurred when he logged onto AOL's Personal Finance page to check his portfolio and was given another user's portfolio.

He said it was the second time in a month he entered his own account information and got a different account. "I have various portfolios set up, so I signed on last month and I got a completely erroneous set of investments." 

At the time, Szkaradek said he thought AOL had simply crossed the accounts. Because he has more than one screen name, he assumed the company had taken an old set of portfolios and displayed them on his current one. 

"I didn't think it was that big a deal because I figured something just got crossed within my accounts," he said. "But AOL gave me a way to fix it and then it worked fine." 

Then Szkaradek got someone else's portfolio when he logged onto AOL. "It wasn't even related to me," he said. "It shocked me because someone else could be looking at mine." 

Szkaradek decided to add information to that account to let the other person know that AOL had let him access the account. "I told him to give me a call and I gave him my phone number and left my e-mail address," he said. "I didn't try to delete any of his portfolios, but it was clear to me that I could." 

Szkaradek said he is furious because AOL does not see the problem as a security breach. He said he contacted AOL and received the following response.

"Thank you for contacting the Personal Finance Channel. My name is Kevin and I'll be assisting you today. Your portfolios are still safely on our servers. There appeared to be an issue with the portfolios not being recognised for some members. Our programmers have corrected this at this time. I apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused." 

But Szkaradek said it was not that the system did not recognise his portfolios; it gave him someone else's portfolios. He considers that a breach of security. 

Szkaradek said he has notified the US Federal Trade Commission about the problem.

Linda Rosencrance writes for Computerworld

Read more on IT risk management