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Networking Notes: Fear and Loathing for the Holidays

Computer security vendors have a field day this time of year, because journalists are quickly running out of things to write about and the security industry has been saving up scary numbers all year long.

Networking Notes

Let's see here ...

It's bad idea to buy beta hardware? Check.

It's a bad idea to buy a Windows release early? Check.

It's a bad idea to let newbies run SMTP servers? Check.

It's a bad idea to connect an expensive router to a $5 KMart power strip? Check, kind of.

Sorry for the delay getting started. I was just making my list and checking it twice before the year ends, making sure I got most of the "getting to know you" columns out of the way. I think I have one more to cover.

Security and spam are popular topics at this time of year. The computer security industry lives on its capacity to manufacture a sense of terror about the Internet, and journalists live on their capacity to report things. So the security industry has a heyday around this time of year, because the journalists are quickly running out of things to write about and the security industry has been saving up numbers all year long. So out come the studies and reports with headlines like:

MacCrackee Software Reports Malware Up 67 Gajillion Percent in 2006

or

Spam: Leaving Inboxes, Killing Small Pets SinninTech Reports

Sometimes, if you get a lot of these reports and studies, it's fun to compare the numbers. Were instant messaging worms up 75 percent, as one security vendor claims? Or more like 34 percent as another claims? Were there 1,542 unique threats? Or just 219? You can hurt your head trying to figure out what's up, or you can just mentally substitute the entire text of the article with "Buy Antivirus Software Right Now or Your Computer Will Explode. It's as Bad as You Think!"

The problem with making fun of the security industry is that there's a point to the software, even if the marketing departments sometimes overstate it: There are worms and viruses and other nasties out there, and you need to be careful.

There's another side to the fear ... er ... security industry, though, which is what we'll call the prohibitionist side. It makes its money off a mentality driven by the belief that there's no problem you can't solve by just telling people to stop doing bad things then engineering a technical solution to make it impossible to do bad things.

The technology this mentality drives is often referred to as "throwing the baby out with the bath water," and the software it produces usually involves banning instant messaging, filtering Web mail and screening "bad" Web sites. This side of the industry piggy-backs off the anti-virus folks by citing the dire statistics the anti-virus people compile, then blaming them on a list of activities it claims it can stop: installing unauthorized software, visiting unauthorized sites, talking to unauthorized people and on and on.

Sometimes it provides its own press releases citing nebulous "lost productivity" figures during certain holiday weeks ("Overjoyed Democrats watching the electoral returns on CNN may cost employers a hundred and three jermillion dollars in lost productivity!") for why businesses need to lower the boom on the unruly and slothful.

Here's the thing: When it comes to exercising total control over people, or the things people are in control of, technology is not only not the best answer, it's kind of harmful. No one's ever going to get total control, for one, and the chances are good that some of the things those tools block, outlaw or require begging to get are tools people want for good reason. As much as computing and network technology has moved forward in the last ten years, so have the people using that technology.

Consider instant messaging. Everyone agrees that IM was simply not on the radar of "serious adult" users five years ago. It was, however, on the radar of everybody who needed something more immediate than e-mail, with more control over who could command the user's attention and with a more nuanced capacity for expressing availability than either "reply" or "stony silence." So despite the goofy emoticons and teen-oriented add-ons, IM thrived.

It thrived because people work better with IM. They work better enough that an industry has sprung up around something considered a child's toy five years ago. Has it introduced problems? About as many as e-mail, and generally of the same kind. But it has also proven useful enough that IBM, Microsoft and a host of smaller companies are making multi-million dollar bets on demand for more.

In a prohibitionist environment, IM wouldn't be where it is today, and it's where it is because employers and businesses learned to let their users take the lead in picking the best tools to do the job. The same could apply to browser choice, text editors and a host of other things that the average information worker, much more tech savvy than he or she was five years ago, has come to depend on.

If we want to deal with the problems that come from so-called "greynet" software, the best thing to do isn't to drive ourselves crazy keeping up with all the "solutions" we're being offered. The best thing to do is invest in education. We should learn not only with a list of "thou shalt nots," but with a genuine effort to explain why doing dumb things like opening unexpected attachments and visiting porn sites at work is a problem. And if we're pretty sure we know why that stuff is a problem, we should be helping people who don't know.

Rather than infantilizing ourselves and others by living a version of the Internet as a place where things arbitrarily go wrong regardless of our choices, we should be empowering ourselves with knowledge, and expecting to be held accountable and responsible for that power.

Want to use a different browser? Fine. Then take responsibility for slacking off on a favorite sports site and missing deliverables. New chat clients? Cool. Just don't treat bad side effects like some externality that landed from the sky, and take responsibility for lost time.

When we set off down the path of prohibiting rather than educating, we set ourselves up for years of tracking down edge cases, practicing forbidding more than enabling, and guaranteeing we'll never learn anything. It'll be great for the companies selling "solutions," but bad for users all the way around.

So ... it's a bad idea to create an environment of fear and mistrust, then spend a lot of money on technology to "fix" a people problem? Check.


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