Lost Innocence…May 2005
A few days ago, I received an e-mail notifying me that it was time
to renew two of my web domain subscriptions. From what I could remember,
it has been about a year since my last renewal, so the timing was
right and all the information on the notification seemed to be correct.
The notification had the correct domain names and was addressed
specifically to me. Nevertheless, when it came time to enter my
credit card number, I thought long and hard about whether I should
do it. Was this a legitimate request or another “phishing”
attack? Would my credit card number end up in some identity thief’s
computer who would then use it for a short-term shopping spree?
A year or two ago, I would not have had such concerns. Then, my
biggest worries were with viruses and worms, and/or that my Windows-98
software would freeze up just as I was about to save several hours
worth of work. With continuous attention and a subscription to a
virus-scan service that updates my computer automatically every
time I log on, the virus and worm problems don’t seem to be
as serious anymore. The ugly bugs that several times in the past
required outside intervention are no longer able to get through.
And the latest versions of Windows seem to be reasonably stable.
We have become comfortable using our computers for word processing,
for spreadsheets, for doing presentation slides, and for searching
out information. It only took a few years for technical conferences
to change over from overhead foils and 35mm slides to computer generated
visuals. I find it somewhat amazing just how quickly this conversion
happened and how completely it changed the way we do presentations.
I don’t think it would even be possible to speak at a technical
conference in 2005 using slides or overheads without having to make
special arrangements. And most likely that would place one into
the “slow group” category.
We have become dependent on e-mail for much of our business and
personal communications. However, I still like the telephone because
I can cover more topics in the same amount of time and receive instant
feedback. For me, there is also great benefit to getting a sense
of the emotions that go along with the factual statements. Somehow
those feelings don’t come across as well by e-mail, often
leading to misunderstandings when sensitive topics are being discussed.
The cost of communicating to any spot on the globe has become essentially
free. But there is a dark cloud that most of us in the technology
community did not anticipate while creating all of these wonderful
tools for computing and communicating.
As basically honest, trustworthy -- and perhaps somewhat naive
-- technologists we did not adequately take into account the darker
side of human behavior. We did not anticipate how much effort some
folks would be willing to put into finding ways to use these new
electronic communication capabilities for nefarious purposes --
to basically lie, cheat, and steal! And because the cost of reaching
essentially everyone on the globe is now so low, and because a sender
can easily hide somewhere out there in “electronic space”,
the past controls of communication cost and sender identification
no longer exist. Finding “likely victims” has never
been easier. Mass mailings to e-mail addresses that have been obtained
using automated “web-crawlers” can now be done with
ease and essentially at no cost. There is no one to monitor the
legitimacy of anything that is promoted. As long as there are countries
somewhere on this globe that condone dishonest behaviors, the seedy
characters will have protected sanctuaries.
Thus, each day my electronic in-box becomes the repository of at
least a hundred junk e-mails – in spite of a mild spam-filter
that deletes at least a hundred more. Not only are they junk, but
they are deceptive and dishonest junk. All those offers for prescription
medications, for various body-part enhancements, announcements of
lotteries won and promises of money transfers, are worse and financially
more dangerous than the “snake oil” salesmen of centuries
past. The sad similarity is that both prey on the gullibility of
honest and trusting people. Perhaps one could take the position
that if people are going to be so gullible and trusting then they
deserve whatever happens as a result of responding to these improbable
offers. But what happens if even the most knowledgeable of us can
no longer tell what is legitimate and what is a scam?
Not so many years ago, there were all kinds of wonderful predictions
about how electronic commerce and the Internet would replace traditional
stores. And indeed there are a few major successes. For example,
many people now purchase their airline tickets and make other travel
arrangements on-line. Ebay has become an outstanding success with
the creation of a worldwide auction house. This has provided a tremendous
new service, especially for new technology start-ups. Shopping for
used electronic equipment and parts has never been easier or more
enjoyable. The key to making it work is a feedback systems that
keeps most sellers (and buyers) reasonably honest. The darker side
of human behavior is quickly exposed and not allowed to flourish.
Negative and positive feedback is posted for everyone to see. Perhaps
this is no different than an electronic circuit where a feedback
loop is used to keep it operating within specified tolerances.
Unfortunately, such controls are sadly lacking for most of the
rest that masquerades as electronic commerce on the Internet. Other
than Ebay, Amazon.com, and merchants we already know from their
“brick and mortar” or conventional mail-order reputations,
the Internet has become a “den of thieves.” Not only
do we have to put up with spam, we now have to deal with “phishing”
attacks that imitate banks, credit card providers, and other legitimate
businesses -- and even Ebay itself. And that is not all. Certain
sites, once accessed, insert programs into our computers that take
over control of certain vital functions. They deliver unwanted pop-up
ads, put up screen savers that we don’t want, and send us
to sites that we did not request.
We have indeed lost our innocence! We have also lost a great opportunity.
How can new Internet-based businesses become established in a market
place fouled by the preponderance of participants who are succeeding
in their illicit behaviors because they are unlikely to be caught
and punished? The only “feedback” system that exists
today is through the news media that try to educate us about the
latest scams by which we are likely to be victimized. But even for
those of us who try to stay well-informed, the threats we encounter
are so many and so cleverly executed that we dare not take risks
with anything that is sent to us unless we are absolutely sure that
it is from a source we know and trust. And even then we may have
remaining concerns regarding whether someone is sending us such
a clever imitation that it will fool us into providing information
that will steal some important part of our identity.
Can this problem be solved? Will it be solved? Or will we simply
decide that electronic commerce isn’t such a great opportunity
after all? At the moment, I don’t see anything on the horizon
that looks like a solution. If fact, with the latest trends in “phishing”
the problem seems to be getting worse. What do you think? Is there
something that will get this situation under control, or will it
end up limiting the usefulness of the Internet for new business
opportunities? You can let me know your thoughts be responding directly
through this site, by sending me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org,
by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.