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Fear of the Unknown: Part I


You don’t want to be me these days. One of my clients was the subject of an unflattering story in BusinessWeek recently, and I have been dealing with the fallout. It’s a frustrating situation.
The core issue is adware – software that allows advertisers to market directly to consumers through their computers – and the problem is one of perception. My client is bearing the brunt of public frustration over the issue of online advertising, and that frustration is manifest in numerous scathing comments in the article as well as a lawsuit filed in April by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
I mention that in the interest of full disclosure. My purpose for writing this article is not to defend my client, however. That effort is in the hands of a number of skilled lawyers. Instead, I think it’s worth pointing out that, like a lot of technology-related issues, much of the fear is rooted in the unknown.
You see, for a lot of folks, technology is little more than magic. It’s fascinating in concept, elusive in practice, and mysterious in origin. We seek out the help of those who employ the arcane crafts associated with technology, and we know enough to convince ourselves we, too, are skilled, but deep down we are superstitious beings; we fear that which we do not understand.
And most don’t understand technology, so, by simple logic, most fear it.
There are a number of areas where this fear of the unknown has the public paralyzed, namely adware, identification theft/privacy, radio frequency identification (RFID), and biometrics.
I’ll deal with each of them serially, but since it’s on my mind, will start with the issue of online advertising.
The blanket term used to describe advertising software is “spyware.” It’s a loaded term. Spies are sinister characters whose job requires that they operate in the shadows. They go where they aren’t wanted to steal information that isn’t theirs. Spyware is, by definition, no good. But there are no clear parameters for affixing that label to software, and so the term gets used wherever convenient, feeding on the anxieties of a public that harbors an inherent mistrust of technology and has been bombarded with stories of identity theft and online invasions of privacy.
Merriam-Webster recently added spyware to its online dictionary (tip of the hat to cyber law blogger Eric Goldman for calling attention to that fact), but even that arbiter of the American lexicon leaves enough room for shenanigans.
I’m typing this missive on a Dell laptop. Every time I boot up my machine, dialog bubbles appear informing me of something Dell thinks I should do based on the current state of my computer. How does it know my system needs a critical upgrade? By communicating with a server somewhere in Texas (or India…). I run iTunes on my laptop and, unbeknownst to most, every time I am connected to the Internet running iTunes, the application communicates to a server somewhere, transferring information about the songs I’ve downloaded. My HP printer keeps tabs on ink levels and reminds me when I might need to conduct maintenance or buy new stuff, giving me a direct and convenient conduit to their online resources should I want to make a purchase. When I visit my favorite online retailers, my preferred news portals, or communities where I’m active, small software files known as cookies often install on my system to make life easier for me. Without them, I’d have to remind the site who I am at click.
Spyware? Hardly, though each of the examples I’ve cited fits the Merriam-Webster definition. More to the point, if I had an axe to grind with Dell, or Apple, or HP I could pull spyware out of my sock and stick it in like a shiv, just as the fear-mongers do. I could conjure images of Big Brother and of cyber-criminals working feverishly to gain access to private information through nefarious schemes.
Fact is, the Internet is fascinating place, where individuals have access to more information than thought imaginable a generation ago, and where people are free to explore any topic on a whim. That freedom comes with responsibility, however, and that responsibility means understanding the risks.
Just as advertisements on network television afford the public broad access to free entertainment, many web sites and software products are made available to computer users through the support of advertising. Not much is free, and every transaction you’ll ever make comes with a responsibility to know what you are getting and what you need to give. The concept is old enough that the Romans had a term for it: caveat emptor.
I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t reasons to be concerned with the way some organizations conduct themselves online, but it behooves you to read the “terms of agreement” before clicking the “I agree” button. Every time.
The best weapon for combating fear is knowledge, and for all the information available online, knowledge is clearly lacking.

Share  Posted by Mike Spinney at 8:30 AM | Permalink

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