Big Brother isn't watching.
At least, that's what officials at Prodigy, a popular information, shopping and home-entertainment service for personal computer users, said this week as they tried to allay concerns the company was spying on its nearly 1 million subscribers.
The joint venture of Sears, Roebuck and Co. and International Business Machines Corp. provides home computer users access through their modems to games, news and electronic shopping, banking and mail. Subscribers are required to obtain Prodigy's own software. But an apparent glitch in the software makes it look as if Prodigy has been capturing personal information about individual subscribers.
Prodigy said that it got so many questions and complaints about the problem that it set up an electronic forum on the system specifically to deal with subscribers' concerns.
Users have been startled to find their personal tax information, passwords, private phone directories and even medical information in a computer file, called "stage.dat," one of many that Prodigy creates in the hard disk on a user's computer. The file is automatically created when the software is installed by the user.
Linda Rohrbough, a Los Angeles computer consultant, was at a trade show recently when someone told her about the file. "I thought it was a lot of horse hockey," Ms. Rohrbough said. Nevertheless, after returning home, she looked through the file and found proprietary instructions that she and her husband wrote for a computer program they were planning to market.
Ms. Rohrbough said she canceled her subscription. "I believe they'redoing market research," she said.
Brian Ek, a spokesman for the White Plains, N.Y.-based company, said that Prodigy does not snoop in people's personal files. Mr. Ek said that none of the personal information that users see in the Prodigy file is leaving their computers.
"The bottom line is, we don't retrieve any of this information, and we have no plans to," he said, although he noted that it was technically possible for Prodigy to program its computers so that they could access subscribers' personal computers. He said the company would soon be offering a free corrective program to wipe clean the space allocated for any personal data.
"It's a terrible design error," said Marc Rotenberg, director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a Washington-based organization that looks out for the civil liberties of computer users.