TOC Argus v. Hermes. Can consumers be cowed? Your Turn

I wrote my first fillip six months ago. My appreciation for professional writers has increased in proportion. Take for example those columnists who need to pen a weekly masterpiece. Dating inspiration on a regular schedule is a bit like farming. One can always sow but will it rain just so?

As far as I am concerned, I have found it works best to date more than one muse. Sometimes a particular violation of personal rights calls for an immediate reaction, un cri du coeur like The plain truth about the Airport Syndrome. The callousness of established powers towards other people's eprivacy is frightening indeed. The world however gives us as much comedy than it does tragedy. I needed no pretext to mine the great Hewlett Packard board farce for a whole month (see 9/12, 9/19, 10/3 and 10/10 fillips). And when the news become encouragingly dull, I can always pluck some event out of the mainstream and show its true color under the special lighting effects of eprivacy. Thus Carl Ghosn's visit to the chairman of General Motors morphs into July 4th, le 14 juillet: must we choose? and the Netflix challenge becomes Panurge's sheep flock to Netflix.

The subject of today though did not come from indignation, humor or inquisitiveness. I did not look for it, I did not recognize it and yet, all of a sudden there it was, a true monster made of old newspapers to scare adults caught unaware.

I was filing away a month worth of clippings. How 20th century, will you say! But consider nobody knows what I read for real when I peruse the paper media while the web media has the annoying habit of logging my every move, where, when and for how long. I digress. I was filing away when my eye caught a clipping by Kevin Allison about the increasing threat from keyloggers (*). There is not much difference between a keylogger and an Internet media site. Both spy on you with the same zeal in order to better part you from your money (see 7/25 fillip). But one is a legitimate lord while the other is Robin Hood (see 10/24 fillip). And while one can at will restrain one's interactions with known sites, one is defenseless against a sneaky hacker intent, among other things, to capture your credit card number as you type it to buy some desirable goods online.

I then turned to read an interesting page on what happens next when congressmen page their pages with abandon. As reported by Jessica E. Vascellaro and Anjali Athavaley (**), it is time for parents to install special surveillance software to track their kids' online activities. Needless to say some of those products include a keylogging ability. Robin Hood working for the Sheriff of Nottingham as it were. While I am no longer concerned about such dangers as my children are grown up, I do sympathize with today's parents. However I cannot help thinking the world is upside down. Wouldn't it be more efficient to put the US Congress under online surveillance? Aren't jails made for criminals rather than victims? Plus there are far fewer people to track in the US Congress than there are children in the land. There has to be a better way.

Still unaware of what was shaping up, I next came to a thought provoking article by M. P. Dunleavey (***). It is one of those truths which strike you as obvious in hindsight, i.e. when someone else has done the work for you. Assuming the software involved is well done, an Internet online store crams the whole array of goods and services right next to the checkout counter. How convenient for impulse buying ! Since, no matter what you want, Google ensures there is a store a few key strokes away, really the whole world is there to buy right now. Add a drink or two in the privacy of your home to free yourself from inhibition and what prevents you from some silly shopping under the influence ? M. P. Dunleavey does not elaborate upon possible solutions but you have guessed. Chances are your natural typing rhythm is just as impaired by alcohol as your natural gait. I bet you there is a market for a keylogger to prevent you from buying online when not sober.

At this point I paused a moment to consider if there was not something lurking in the dark. It jumped into the light the minute I glanced at George F. Will's weekly column (****). Here he was, disparaging the new American prohibition against online gambling. Good grief ! Not against gambling alone. Prohibition II should include good old Prohibition I and forbid shopping under the influence. And why stop there ? Give enough intelligence to the keylogger and it can encompass and deter any remotely reprehensible human impulse.

A monster all right. But even if hackers, parents and governement agents conspired together, it would be hard to dupe all the people all the time to download, install and run such a giant keylogger. Parents for one would play a double game. I was not too frightened yet.

I finally picked up Richard Waters' report on Vista, the upcoming Microsoft operating system (*****). Do you realize that by its very nature an operating system captures all the keys ? Forget about downloading a piece of software past a vigilant user. Microsoft's keylogger is already there. You thought that such a big program would not go unnoticed for long ? Compared to the total size of Vista, it shrinks into insignificance. You doubt that Microsoft would stoop so low as to implement Prohibition II ? When Microsoft needs to tread softly to avoid those pesky charges of acting as a monopoly, when most large Internet companies routinely condone state-ordered censorship for the sake of commerce (see 5/16 fillip), when Microsoft itself announces that it will retain control of the machine you buy and reserve the right to cripple it if it deems you a pirate, you know that this monster is for real.

Happy Halloween !

Philippe Coueignoux

PS: Hermes, the god of Commerce, was once sent by Zeus to dispose of Argus, the ever vigilant watcher, what with one hundred eyes, no more than a couple shut at any one time. Total Surveillance promptly fell to sleep under the blandishments of truth-stretching Commerce and was duly dispatched. Hope then ? Not quite as Zeus' goal was to free Io from her keeper. Who would envy a life of freedom as a cow ?

  • (*).........Password-stealing software spurs computer crime spree, by Kevin Allison (Financial Times) - October 11, 2006
  • (**)......Foley Scandal Turns Parents Into Web Sleuths, by Jessica E. Vascellaro and Anjali Athavaley (The Wall Street Journal) - October 18, 2006
  • (***)....Buying Online With a Brain That's Offline, by M.P. Dunleavey (New York Times) - October 07, 2006
  • (****)..Prohibition II: Good Grief, by George F. Will (Newsweek) - October 23, 2006
  • (*****)Microsoft to shut out PCs using pirate Vista, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - October 04, 2006
October 2006
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