Fun_People Archive
20 May
E-beast on the rampage

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Sat, 20 May 100 03:02:19 -0700
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Subject: E-beast on the rampage

X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649  -=[ Fun_People ]=-
From: The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, May 17, 2000

 E-beast on the rampage
   A certain corporate behemoth can't help throwing its weight around, and
 the nerds are getting trampled, says Spider Robinson
 By Spider Robinson

   Robert A. Heinlein said the way to assess the intelligence of a committee
 is to divide the IQ of its stupidest member by the number of members.
 There's a rather large software concern whose recent corporate behaviour
 has been so transcendently stupid as to suggest that an IQ no higher than
 that of its own rather notorious operating system has been divided by the
 number of installed copies worldwide, then given a negative exponent equal
 to its founders' personal wealth expressed in Canadian pennies. If a
 corporation is an imaginary person, this one makes Homer Simpson look like
 Freeman Dyson.

   Unfortunately I can't name it. Doh!

   I dare not. Its lawyers -- as if they don't have enough to do -- just
 began attempts to censor people who are saying critical things about it
 in what amounts to a techies' coffeehouse in cyberspace. Imagine what they
 might do to someone who dissed it in a national journal of record.

   But to get the full beauty of this, you need a bit of
 historical/technical context. This corporation -- let's arbitrarily honour
 comic Phil Silvers and call it BillCo, shall we? -- BillCo has had a spot
 of legal trouble lately, in one of the larger adjacent nations. Less said
 the better, of course, but in essence a large-ish number of folks there
 feel Billco is (a) too big, (b) less than competent, and (c) a bit of a

   There's even been loose talk lately, at the higher levels of that
 nation's justice system, about crippling or dismantling BillCo by
 government fiat. In the business world, this sort of thing is considered
 undesirable. It wakes up the stockholders.

   It was at this cusp in BillCo's corporate history that an unfortunate
 occurrence unfortunately occurred. One of the most popular of its many
 products contains an innovative feature -- ironically, one of the few
 genuinely original features ever offered by BillCo -- called "scripting,"
 which unfortunately is really not a feature but a bug. A gaping security
 flaw, in fact, begging to be exploited: a backdoor big enough to admit a
 Visigoth horde in full kit without waking the watchdog.

   Get this: BillCo's e-mail agent -- let's call it LookOut! -- was
 deliberately designed to let strangers send you e-mail that can issue
 commands to your computer without consulting you. No, really! If you use
 BillCo's operating system -- let's call it OpenWindow -- and run LookOut!,
 your computer's no longer merely user-friendly: It's now a user-slut; one
 too dumb to carry condoms, or even take names.

   Perhaps the thinking -- if any -- was that somehow only corporations as
 big and respectable as BillCo would ever take advantage of this wide-open
 back window. But last week the worldwide Pea-brained Vandal community,
 after months of inexplicable restraint, finally decided the time to party
 had come, and things quickly got ugly. Dismayed LookOut! users soon found
 their promiscuous program had given them not just viruses, but worms,
 which is as horrid as it sounds.

   Turns out quite a few people use LookOut! and some version of OpenWindow.
 Collectively they lost a fair amount of time and data -- and money -- and
 it's safe to say many are unhappy. It's only a matter of time before they
 all wise up, and figure out out how the vandals got in. When they do,
 they'll have things to say, and some may decide to say it with subpoenas.

   If I were a BillCo lawyer, already sweating a momentous verdict, I'd
 have spent the last week restocking the bunker with supplies against yet
 another long siege. And if I were (shudder!) a BillCo PR flack, I'd have
 spent the week racking my brains for some way to make BillCo come across
 warm and likeable and beleaguered by bureaucrats. Hearken to what they
 did instead.

   There's another operating system I can call by its right name here,
 because nobody owns it. Linux is open-source: Anybody can get under the
 hood and suggest or demonstrate improvements; good ones get adopted by
 the community. This makes for superb, cutting-edge software -- free! A
 few years ago, for instance, volunteers developed Kerberos: an
 open-standard security system that authenticates the identity of users
 who log into Unix networks. Theodore Ts'o and others worked on it together
 until it was Way Cool, inviting others to use and/or improve it. Then
 BillCo showed up at the barn-raising, eager to help.

   Next thing you know, OpenWindow 2K has a version of Kerberos built in.
 Only theirs is copyright. Proprietary rather than free. And funny thing:
 It doesn't interact effectively with Unix or Linux computers . . .

   A few programmers have been discussing this lately at a website called
 Slashdot . It bills itself as "news for nerds,"
 and that's exactly what it is: a big public bulletin board on which nerds
 rap with each other. No matter how heated the discussion might have become,
 there was no possibility of any tangible consequence in the real world.
 Until BillCo decided to try and censor it.

   I'm not joking: BillCo last week asked Slashdot to delete the Kerberos
 discussion-thread. No specific "or-else" was named . . . but it was lawyers
 who did the asking (it's alleged that some miscreant revealed secrets of
 BillCo's proprietary software).

   Say again: The sergeants of BillCo -- which is seriously threatened with
 the corporate equivalent of lobotomy and castration, and which just this
 month damaged millions of its customers through apparent gross
 internet-security incompetence -- decided in their corporate wisdom that
 this is the moment to make sure not only Linux weenies, but everyone who
 is literate, thinks of them as creeps and bullies.

   Wish I could help. But so far my lawyer and I have never met, and I like
 it that way. So please don't ask which OS I'm talking about. Apropos of
 nothing, by the way, my neighbor Homer hates black birds -- so my crows
 oft win. Doh!

   B.C. science-fiction writer Spider Robinson has been a Mac user since
 1984. Bantam will publish his new novel Callahan's Key in July.

 Copyright 2000 | The Globe and Mail

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