You Don't Own Your Computer


by Samuel Greengard

Imagine if anyone could traipse into your house and store their stuff in your kitchen or closets. Or if they could get into your car whenever they desired. Imagine a world without doors or locks.

That's the state of computing today. Yes, we have anti-malware software and an assortment of other protections to keep bad guys out. But these are all reactive systems designed to stop a malicious piece of software from doing damage. They do not address a key issue: marketers have easy access to computers.

It's a remarkable concept. And it goes way beyond cookies. Install a browser app like Ghostery and you get a pretty good idea of who's tracking you with web bugs, pixels, beacons and other bits and bytes. Almost every conceivable web site is included: CNN, Facebook, Amazon, the New York Times and eBay. Think about it: are you ever asked to opt in?

The U.S. Congress has done nothing to require marketers to ask if you want to be tracked. Attempts at legislation have quickly died. Personally, I have no problem with these systems as long as I consent to them. I can even see an advantage to receiving more targeted and relevant advertising. What I do have a huge problem with is the unauthorized invasion and near total disregard for privacy from advertisers and the likes of Facebook.

Sony BMG tried to covertly install rootkits on systems a few years ago in order to amp up copy protection. The computing world went berserk and understandably so. Sony wound up recalling these CDs after it became the target of a spate of lawsuits and public vitriol. Unfortunately, the same general thing is going on every day but there seems to be few attempts to deal with the problem. Microsoft has made some strides with Do Not Track capabilities in Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox and Chrome have some settings and extensions available, including AdBlock Plus, to deal with the problem.

But these require a decent amount of time and effort to manage, which essentially means that few people wind up using them. At some point, Congress needs to pass a law that requires anyone installing software or tracking devices of any kind on any computer or phone to notify the user and let them opt in. It won't get rid of cybercrooks and create a totally safe and secure computing world but it will allow us to at least keep the doors locked.