Eightball and Thundercloud's RANT

Our Little Rant by Eightball & Thundercloud
From InfoAve Premium Issue #66 January 21, 2004
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The Red Helmet Society

I've often wondered why normally intelligent people who seem to have their feet firmly planted on the ground in "real" life, suddenly become bereft of the qualities that make them successful as soon as they touch a computer or get on the Internet. What is it about computers and the Internet that seem to reduce a normally functional human brain into a tangled mass of misfiring neurons in a bowl full of gray jelly?

What brings this to mind is, the other day we had a woman write to us and complain that she couldn't use our stationery. We correctly pointed out that the spyware she had installed was preventing our stationery from working properly. "Not only that", we said, "but it's preventing you from using your Outlook Express in the normal way." We offered her help in removing the spyware and warned her of the consequences of having this type of software installed. We told her that her personal privacy may be at risk, that her machine was surely in jeopardy of eventual (almost certain) catastrophic failure, and that she is leaving an open tunnel between her computer and the spyware's home server through which other questionable programs could be (and most likely will be) installed. And, that this particular spyware program was using her computer's resources to display advertisements, track her behavior on the Web, and to send back these reports to the spyware server. Her response? "No, thanks. I'll keep what I have." Hmmm...

A computer is just a machine. It can't do anything without you doing something first; like any other machine. Somehow when people sit down at a computer they become instantly bewildered and overwhelmed. Now, mind you, these are the same people who, in their normal lives, are nurses, doctors, lawyers, professors, managers, and so on. They are successful professionals, tradesmen/tradeswomen, parents, teachers, business owners, grandparents, candlestick makers; you know - real people. They appear normal in real life. But, suddenly are transformed when they don their "Web" mask and allow the Internet to slowly suck their brain out and disperse it randomly across cyberspace. Luckily for the "real" world, this condition is temporary. As soon as the computer is shut down the brain returns to its normal condition. The Web mask comes off, and the person returns to his or her normal state and go back to baking cookies, varnishing boats, or whatever else one does when not on the Internet having his or her brain sucked out.

Here's an example: We're often asked "How do I know if something is spyware?". Well the first clue is spyware is most always free. But, not everything that is free is spyware. Think of it this way: If your local Ford dealer suddenly announced they were giving away free cars, a normal person's first thought would be: "What's the catch?". And, they'd scrutinize the fine print to find the catch because they know there is one. Big companies do not give things away. Now, let's say you walked into Mary's Bakery Shop and Mary offered you a free apple Danish. You wouldn't wonder what the catch is. You instinctively know there's no fine print to be read. You'd eat the Danish and if you're the greedy sort you ask for a free cup of coffee. If you're not the greedy type, you offer to pay for the coffee and waddle on your way.

Do you see the difference in the above examples? You know when a Ford dealer gives away cars, they're not doing it because they're such swell people. There's going to be a catch. And, you want to know what the catch is before you drive away in that new 2005 Escape. You'll read the fine print, call and ask them about the offer, and investigate before you take the keys and drive away. But, Mary's Bakery is different. Mary is a small shop. You know her. You've dealt with her for some time. She's not spending zillions of dollars on advertising. You trust her.

Yet, when some people get on the Internet, their brain seems to vanish into the gazillion pixels of their monitor and swept into some ethereal realm awaiting for computer shutdown to return to the person's skull. They see something "Free" that seems too good to be true. They don't know the company but who cares? Not them, that's for sure! They don't suspect anything. They don't read the fine print. Why bother? This is the Internet, man!  They download it and for awhile everything seems OK. The cancer grows quietly at first. But, an imperceptible change is taking place deep within the bowels of their computer. One day you notice your computer is a little slower, you notice that you're seeing a lot more ads; you pass it off as nothing important. Then, a little while later, you notice when you turn your computer on you're greeted with a bevy of popups and your browser opens several windows; and you haven't even opened your browser yet.

The people who develop spyware are not stupid. They've invented something worse than a virus; they've invented a computer cancer that grows slowly, imperceptibly, so that by the time the symptoms appear, and you notice something's terribly wrong, you don't make the connection between that "free goodie" you got a month or so ago and the problems you're having now. So, you will probably blame the very last thing you installed; while the real spyware merrily continues to plunder your computer and your privacy. In the meantime, while your computer has been slowly dying, the spyware has been gathering data about your personal surfing habits and your online buying habits and sold you out a hundred times to different advertisers who have their greedy little mouths open waiting for the spyware companies to feed them your information.

And what's worse they feed on your computer's own resources to make their cancer grow. Using a little more of your resources each day so you don't notice that your computer is getting slower and slower. Programs freeze because your resources are low, so you blame the program because you don't have any inkling that those funny little emoticons and that toolbar you installed have anything to do with it. They're working just fine. It's just everything else that isn't quite right. Eventually, your system will be so full of spyware you'll have to format your hard drive. If you're lucky, you've been backing up your data. If you're not, you'll have to start all over again. And, if you don't realize what caused this mess in the first place, you think about those cute little emoticons you got free and go back and get them. As soon as you "get them" they'll "get you". And it starts all over again: the perpetual spyware cycle.

It may be true that the Internet may never crossover into your everyday life, so what difference does it make if you download spyware or worse on your computer? Still, it sure is annoying when your computer runs slowly or not at all. And, it's hassle to format your hard drive and expensive to have it done by a technician. I don't know about your "real" life but if I had to pay a hundred bucks for a format; that would affect my "real" world. And, if you have important records or keep books on your computer; if you store important files or irreplaceable family photographs, it can affect your "real" world. So, you see what you do on the Internet and how you handle things on the Internet can and does affect your everyday life in a big way.

If I could I'd invent a helmet that would protect people's brains while using computers and the Internet. I would make the helmet red. And if you wore it you'd keep your brain intact while surfing. I would sell it for $20.00 and form a society called the Red Helmet Society. I'd be rich and you'd be safe. And, you wouldn't have to read any more of these rants. I'd be laying on a beach in Barbados, in my Speedo's, drinking a refreshing Caribbean Cooler, peeling a coconut and watching the world go by. I'd be so far away from the Internet....

Hey! Don't you have Wi-Fi on this beach? I want my InfoAve!

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