Column: Fear, loathing on the Net

Does the Heaven's Gate mass suicide prove the devil has staked his claim on the Internet? Not according to this columnist.

The Heaven's Gate tragedy came first, then the US Social Security Administration's Web site.

They're the most recent examples of witch-hunts based on mistaken ideas of what the Internet is and isn't.

Okay, let's take a collective deep breath and review. The Heaven's Gate mass suicide had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that many of the people involved were programmers, or that the cult maintained a Web site. How many people do you know call their bodies "vehicles" and believe that a spaceship will collect them to bring them to the next "level"? And what has any of this got to do with computers, anyway?

Still, some broadcasters depicted this as the "devil on the Internet". Some shows even ran stories about how to keep kids out of Net-based cults. They missed the point entirely. This wasn't a computer-related story; it was about the unfortunate choices this group of people made.

This month, a USA Today story and other reports in the popular press sparked a furore about the Social Security Web site, which was then closed down until further notice. But it's worth noting that no one knows of any actual privacy breaches caused by the site -- the fuss was about the potential for sensitive information to get into the wrong hands.

To access the site, you had to enter your Social Security number, place of birth and mother's maiden name, among other data. Not too many people know all of that information about me. How about you?

As a colleague pointed out, anyone can request a change of address at the Post Office for anyone else without showing any identification. But once you put a service like that on the Net, it suddenly becomes evil, and mass hysteria breaks out.

It's good that questions are being raised and that people are concerned. They should be; security and other issues regarding the Net are far from settled. But it's up to all of us in the computer industry to help educate the public about how to be smart consumers on the Net -- and where the real threats lurk.

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