Art & Commerce: Consumer Republic




Zombieware: Some call it crime, others smart marketing
If nothing else, the Great Internet Meltdown of February 2000 enlarged the computer vocabulary of us poor souls who don’t know our TCP from our PPP.
For example, a large swath of the foreign language-challenged American public now knows that Stacheldraht, a hackers program, is German for “barbed wire.” Then there are hacking terms such as “smurfing,” “Trinoo,” and “DoS” (“denial of service”).
Above all, I am eternally grateful to the perpetrators of the denial of service for introducing us to the concept of the “zombie” computer. So far, investigators have turned up zombies at several universities on the West Coast, computers infiltrated by hackers who installed software that they can activate at will.
It was these and other undiscovered zombies which bombarded high-profile sites with data and brought them to their knees two weeks ago. This is strong juju: The computer of any upstanding cyber-citizen can be unknowingly recruited and transformed into the Manchurian candidate, mindlessly taking aim at the whole Internet economy.
Hackers, however, are not the only ones cooking up zombieware. Our computers are constantly being enlisted in tasks we have not instigated or even know take place. Most of the time this isn’t called a crime; it’s called smart marketing.
Begin with the notorious “cookie,” the little tag most sites and many ads leave on your hard drive that tells others where you’ve been and can follow where you’re going. In other words, it’s your computer, but it has been appropriated for someone else’s purpose.
Yes, it is possible for you to program your computer to refuse cookies. But then, you could throw your computer in the trash, too–and, if you disable cookies you might as well. Many sites are designed not to work as intended when cookies are rejected.
On MSNBC.com, the many ways your computer can be hijacked and invaded are detailed by Russ Cooper, who runs an Internet security information service.
Naturally Cooper has a vested interest in scaring us to death on the issue of Internet security, but the picture he paints is still chilling. He warns that to go on the Internet is to be vulnerable to attack, disruption, theft. One’s browser can be altered, monitored and followed. And there’s nothing any of us can do about it, short of not logging on. Unfortunately, Cooper doesn’t go after those who do this stuff legally.
One might argue that zombieware begins with “default” browsers, software which, upon installation, makes a consumer’s choices for him.
Even now, the lawsuits are flying in the wake of AOL 5, which, once selected as the default, makes life difficult for anyone who wants to use another browser, reconfiguring network settings in a way most users aren’t aware of, let alone can fix. Naturally. We all know the pod people can only get you when you’ve fallen asleep.
Such shenanigans, however, are standard operating procedure in the dial-up Internet world. One can argue defaults make the world more manageable for computer illiterates who want to surf the Web. At the same time, they certainly make things easier for AOL or whoever has made itself at home on your computer.
Without minimizing the hacker threat to 21st-century capitalism, I confess that as an Internet user, I did not find the recent attacks on eBay and company so alarming.
It so happens that the day mighty Yahoo! went down, I was one of the horde of hapless info-seekers who could not get on the site. To be honest, I didn’t give it second thought. I don’t know about you, but I have trouble getting onto sites all the time. My computer is constantly freezing, crashing or otherwise suffering a nervous breakdown while I am on the Internet.
When the portal turned me away, who knew this was “denial of service?” I assumed it was just business as usual.
I am less disturbed by zombieware used as a means to disrupt the Internet–which, let’s face it, doesn’t work that well anyway–than the kind employed as a business tool to run it. I am thankful to the hackers for reminding us that once on the Net, no one can claim his computer as his own. Not the University of California at Santa Barbara or the family who logs on at home.
I’m much less scared of the bad guys than the “good” guys who assure us that zombieware is all for our own good. Certainly the computer is a tool of empowerment. But just who is it empowering?