Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Computer Illiteracy

It seems to me that computer literacy is becoming almost as important as the usual kind of literacy. We've seen cases recently where the lack of computer literacy has led to unjust court outcomes (like that of a teacher who was convicted of exposing her class to pornography when a virus- and spyware-ridden Windows 98 computer in the classroom encountered a Javascript "porn storm" and kept opening a new window for every window she closed....) and, obviously, bad public policy.

An example of the latter can be found in a recent Business Week cover story ("E-spionage: A Business Week Investigation", April 21) in which the magazine tries to describe the origins and effects of targeted malware emails to government agencies and contractors. Along the way, they apparently confuse a domain name registrar with an ISP, and describe "corrupted" Microsoft Office documents that somehow, apparently magically, install malware on the recipient's machine. How do they do this? Malicious macros? Buffer overflows? Are they really .exe files masquerading as .doc files? It would be useful to know. There are ways of recognizing these various kinds of attacks that the magazine apparently doesn't know about.

The best part of the article, though, was a description about how a staffer to Missouri Republican Senator "Kit" Bond recommended that the Senator see Die Hard 4 as background on cyber-terrorism. Bond is quoted as saying that "Hollywood... doesn't exaggerate as much as people might think." If our elected representatives are taking technology lessons from Hollywood, no wonder they think the Internet is a bunch of "tubes". Perhaps that also explains why they think they can successfully wiretap terrorists when any halfway computer-literate user can easily evade monitoring using simple, readily available tools, thus guaranteeing that the only "terrorists" these laws will trap will be the hapless, harmless wannabees.

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