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Troubling Implications of Internet’s Ubiquity

Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin

Early last month, institutions around the world were crippled for several days by a new computer virus called the ExploreZip Trojan horse. A Trojan horse, in computer jargon, is a nasty software program that hides inside a file a user is likely to want to see or open.

The ExploreZip virus--more accurately, a computer “worm,” which spreads more automatically than a virus--affected machines running Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Windows application software. Computers throughout the world were shut down, including some at Microsoft and other large corporations as well as the Pentagon.

The ExploreZip worm was a more debilitating version of the Melissa virus that struck Windows machines earlier this year. Because of the apparent vulnerability of Windows-based machines, some computer experts have started to use the metaphor of a “monoculture” to describe our current computing predicament.

The word “monoculture” comes from ecology and biology, another example of the merging of biological terms with computer jargon, like “virus” and “worm.” In ecology, monoculture refers to the dominance or exclusive prevalence of a single species or genetic type in an ecological system--a state typically regarded as pathological and dangerous. Agricultural monocultures, for example, are highly susceptible to blight, soil depletion, disease and other disasters.

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In computing, the recent use of the term has referred to the widespread dominance of Microsoft products. But we may want to extend the metaphor further and contemplate whether we’re developing a universal digital monoculture, one with a troubling potential for negative side effects. Think of it as the perils of digital convergence.

By now, nearly everyone assumes that almost everything we do will be absorbed into the digital “infosphere"--as in IBM’s advertising phrase “Connecting everything to everything.” It’s only a matter of time before television, radio, music, games, commerce and politics are assimilated into the Internet.

This phenomenon is growing every day. We’re about to step into the so-called “post-PC” era, when networked computing will permeate our homes and everyday objects such as refrigerators, telephones, cars and stereos. This model is known as “ubiquitous” or “pervasive” computing, when the Internet will be present in everything and everywhere.

But few people stop to think of the vulnerabilities this might entail.

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Recently there’s been a controversy on the Internet over a new product called Third Voice (https://www.thirdvoice.com), from a company of the same name based in Redwood City, Calif. Third Voice is a free browser plug-in (currently it only works with Windows and Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0) that allows users to create and see notes or messages attached to Web pages by other, independent users.

The messages attached to pages are listed in a small menu bar on the left of the browser screen. When the list is clicked, the messages pop up over the Web page like digital Post-It notes. Third Voice advertises its product as a way for users to have their own say about Web content. Others have called it, pejoratively, “Web graffiti.”

The controversy was generated by Web masters and Web designers who don’t like having their pages “defaced” by this product--it puts the appearance of their pages beyond their control, and, some of them argue, it may be a copyright violation.

The interesting thing about Third Voice, however, is how it works. The content of the Web page it modifies is not altered on the originating server. The messages are simply stored on Third Voice’s own computers and merged with the Web page when a Third Voice user requests the page. The messages then become a kind of “overlay” on the original content, which is otherwise unaltered and available for viewing by other users in its original form.

It will be interesting to see if this product provokes litigation and if so, how that unfolds. But the real impact of Third Voice, along with the recent viruses we’ve seen, is their demonstration of the malleability of digital data, especially given their common format on the Internet.

As we embed the Internet into everything we do and use, it’s as if we’re building a global nervous system that can be tweaked or twitched in infinite, unexpected and perhaps unpleasant ways by anyone clever enough and using the right tools.

One could use the examples of Third Voice, viruses and the hundreds of automated network “agents,” or “bots"--software programs that roam the Internet and perform tasks specified by their users--to speculate on mind-boggling scenarios for the future.

Financial data, for example, could be manipulated in truly scary ways that might not be detectable before serious damage is done. Digital products might alter the appearance of videos or images or the content of sound recordings. Companies could use digital copyright management schemes that would allow automated network searches for and prosecution of people holding unauthorized material. “Smart” electrical power grids could be tempting targets for hackers and virus programmers.

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There was a case involving a pair of Armenian activists who programmed a bot to replace the word “Turkey” with the word ‘genocide” in all usenet newsgroup postings (unwittingly producing some odd online recipes for genocide). When two Arizona attorneys introduced the first case of commercial spam by broadcasting e-mail that advertised their firm, one programmer threatened to retaliate by whipping up a “kill bot” that would seek out and delete any future e-mail from the firm.

In other words, a digital monoculture makes us vulnerable to all sorts of manipulations that have not been possible before. The more ubiquitous this monoculture becomes, the more vulnerable we will be. The year 2000 bug is probably the best example, but it’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The real problem is our unreflective rush into a digital monoculture, a new kind of ecological hazard, using systems so complex, malleable and unpredictable that almost no one understands the danger looming.

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Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.


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