Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 139 / APRIL 1992 / PAGE 64

Access and security: freedom of information. (includes related product list)
by Gregg Keizer

It all comes down to this--information is the current currency. If you rake in information, power, control, and influence will follow. Let it slip through your fingers, and you're suddenly an Information Age pauper. Worse yet, if you let others take what's yours, you might as well put money in their pockets.

It's no surprise, then, that someone like Michael Milken, majordomo of the junk bond business and one of American's most audacious white collar criminals, made hundreds of millions on illegal inside information.

A digital tsunami has already hit business, government, and the sciences, scouring the institutions that couldn't make sense of the new volumes of information and rewarding those that could. The deluge will pour into the home this decade--already you can accumulate an extraordinary amount of data with your household computer. And if they're to survive, schools, too, will have to digest vast quantities of information.

Data tidal waves may put images in your mind of immense amounts of information free for the asking and of an unrestricted freedom to use that information any way you see fit. Those images are not entirely accurate.

Information may be more plentiful today than it was ten years ago, near the time of the birth of the PC, but it's anything but free. It's not something to toss around thoughtlessly. How will information be channeled into the home? How will we pay for it? And how will we protect it?

Tap the Phone

Almost all of the digital information rushing into your home is carried in one a disk or over the phone line.

Disks work well in delivering large amounts of information that isn't time-critical. Computer software--applications, games, educational programs--is delivered on magnetic media. When you bring work home, you probably throw a floppy in your briefcase or stick a disk in your pocket.

Smaller, more timely chunks of consumable information come in on the phone lines, courtesy of online services like Prodigy, CompuServe, GEnie, America Oneline, and others. News, stock quotes, sports scores, and wealher predictions trundle across your screen when you have a modem hooked to your PC.

Data delivery methods are unlikely to change, even though the quantities involved will multiply. Rather than receive noncritical information on dozens of floppy disks, for instance, you'll begin to work with CD-ROMs that hold as much as 660MB of data.

More timely information will keep coming over the phone. In fact, a recent Supreme Court decision cleared the way for communications companies to become providers, not just conveyers, of information. And last fall, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed that local telephone companies be allowed to compete with cable companies in transmitting TV programming over fiber-optic cables.

The general movement to fiber optics--bundles of glass threads theoretically capable of carrying hundreds of video channesl, as well as multiple voice, fax, and data lines--means wider information conduits and offers up the possibility of even greater volumes of data for the home.

Pay the Piper

Information doesn't come cheap. Like cable television, most information providers assess a flat fee-from $4.95 to $12.95 per month--and often tack on additional charges for special services. Almost any data you receive in a digital form costs more than similar information on paper. CD-ROM-based references, for example, can cost several times what you'd spend to put identical works on a bookshelf.

Because bringing information home costs so much, it's no surprise that a majority of home computer users do without. Freedom of information is only available to those who can pay for it.

Hints of economy do exist. Competition among information providers has fueled a minor price war among online services; if the telephone companies themselves enter the fray, that trend may continue. And lower prices for CD-ROM drives have sparked the recent interest in home CD-ROM and multimedia. A few CD-ROMs actually cost less than the paper versions they replace.

Still, since estimates for replacing the country's existing communications network with fiber-optic lines range as high as $250 billion and since those lines are virtually a prerequisite for more extensive information access, it's unlikely that you'll soon be reading the equivalent of your morning paper for the price you now pay your carrier. (That didn't stop the Newspaper Publishers Association from attempting to block the Baby Bells from beginning to provide information, though.)

Home office and home business workers can most easily absorb the costs by pegging them to increased productivity and by carrying them as a business tax deduction. The rest of us won't necessarily get left with a dry data well; we just have to watch the information calories we consume.

Four Steps to a Data Diet

Wading through the Information Age takes time and, unfortunately for anyone not hooked up to a corporate budget, too much money.

You might be able to skimp on paper clips, even pens, by hitting the office discount stores. But information is never discounted.

One of the best data sources for the home and home office computer user is CompuServe, the monolithic online service. Forget about the scads of shareware software and the fratmented special interest groups--though both are places of unparalleled information--and head directly to the reference secton on CompuServe by typing GO REFERENCE.

It's here that you can search through the back issued of several hundred publications or hit more specialized databases like Medline, the medical profession's information collection. Ringing up online research charges is all too easy, though. You need some money-saving strategies.

* Know what you're after. Before you trip the online meter, plan your quest for information. Narrow the searcy by focusing your efforts and cut down online time. If you're casting your data net for information on Pan Am's financial crises, for instance, use a keyword search like PAN AM & FINANCIAL.

* Know where to look. CompuServe keeps online copy from 48 newspapers--a much better resource on breaking information than magazines, which labor under a two- to three-month lag time. Some papers are better than others. The San Jose Mercury News, for example, excels at technology reporting. Turn first to the Washington Post for news on government shenanigans.

* Know what it's going to cost. Balance the need for immediate information against the price you'll pay. Even the slickest searchers--where you quickly find what you're looking for--rarely run less than $5. A ten-minute look-see at three newspaper articles rings up as $14.

* Know when to quit. Don't flog a dead horse. If you come up empty-handed after a search and one alternate, drop it. Although you may want to continue--at any cost--just to get that one tidbit of information, resist the temptation. You can spend staggering amounts if you're not careful. Reconsider your need for the information, or head for the local library instead.

Apply these tactics to any information quest--they're general enough to work anywhere--and you're guaranteed to spend less time--and less money.

How to Keep What's Yours, Yours

With all the hazards to your information and the high price you pay for it, you have to put a high value on the data you accumulate. Here are just a few ways to make the world safer for your files.

1. Buy a tape backup drive if your PC's hard drive is larger than 40MB. You're much more likely to back up your data--and ensure its survival--if you can simply stick a tape in the drive and sit back, rather than feed floppies to the computer for an hour or two.

2. If you can't afford a tape backup drive, go ahead and back up to floppies using Fastback or some other backup utility. But back up only your document, file, and work directories--forget about the applications. Re-creating the entire hard disk will be a headache (when isn't it?), but you can always reinstall applications and games.

3. At home, lock up your PC to keep unwanted hands off the machine. Some PCs include a literal lock-just pocket the key. For those that don't, consider something like MenuWorks Advanced, which demands a password before it lets you get to the computer's contents.

4. Viruses are vastly overrated--for now. But some particularly nasty bugs may migrate from Europe, where they're raising Cain. Do what you can by using an antivirus package like Virucide (see the product and service list at the end of this article).

5. Taking work home? Why not take the hard drive with you? Removable hard drives or cartridge drives at both locations let you take the entire contents of your drive with you, wherever you work.

6. Encrypt sensitive files. PC Tools 7.1 lets you scramble data files--even directories--and then decode them only with the right password.

7. Those people hanging around the fax machine know your business before you do. Invest in a fax board for your office PC--Intel's Satisfaxtion is relatively foolproof-and receive faxes at your desktop rather than at the communal information trough.

8. If you compute remotely from the road with your home or office PC, secure the host by using passwords, restricted calling lists, or any other security features the remote software offers.

9. Walk around with your computing world under your arm. A notebook computer is never more than a briefcase lock away. At home or the office, you can quickly connect it to an adult-sized monitor and keyboard for door-to-door security.

10. The paperless office is a myth. Play like the CIA and shred sensitive documents and printouts. A personal paper shredder that fits over the top of a wastebasket costs less than $200.

Don't Get Paranoid, But . . .

The information glut has a dark side, one that hits closer to home than you might think. In a world where digital records are de rigueur, electronic databases track our Social Security payments, driver's license numbers, credit histories, and nearly everything else that makes up modern life. When records that extensive exist, so does the potential for mistakes. And worse--abuse.

Hackers and viruses may grab the biggest headlines when they invade computer networks and crash systems, but a more invisible invasion occurs every day. Computer databases containing data on consumers--you and me--are a prime information source for companies eager for new customers, banks considering loan applications, and even private investigators hoping to hunt down missing persons.

The trouble is that it's impossible, difficult, or expensive for individuals even to check the validity of those records. Because they're so often used--before a home loan is approved or a credit card issued-credit reports have drawn the most attention. Last year, the consumer research group Consumer Union released the startling information that nearly half of the reports it pulled from the country's major credit bureaus contained some errors.

In fact, one of the Big Three credit report companies, TRW, recently bowed to the critics and said that it would provide consumers free copies of their credit reports on request. But with two other companies of similar size--each of which owns around 150 million records--and hundreds of smaller companies, it's impossible to check every file.

Take My Number? No Way!

Mailing lists and junk mail are nothing new. If up subscribe to almost any magazine, if you've ever returned a product registration or warrant card, or if you just happen to live in an area with the right SIP code, you already receive a ton of unsolicited mail.

What has some of us scared is how easy it's becoming for almost anyone to get those mailing lists. Last year, Lotus scrapped a CD-based database that spotlighted names, addresses, and even spending habits of 120 million consumers. MarketPlace: Households would've made it much easier and more economical for small businesses to pinpoint customers. Over 30,000 people requested that their names be removed from the list; after taking a negative publicity bath, Lotus junked the idea.

MarketPlace: Households may be dead, but your name's on lots of other lists. It's virtually impossible to expunge your name from every one, but you can begin by writing the Direct Marketing Association, 1101 17th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. A phone call won't do; you've got to write a letter. Ask that your name be removed from the Association's lists: it passes along such requests to DMA-member mailing list and electronic database makers.

Is Anybody Listeing?

You probably dash off electronic mail messages to coworkers across the office or to friends across the country without thinking about security. After all, who'd want to read what you write?

Perhaps plent of people. In Springfield, Oregon, city hall's intraoffice electronic mail is now made available to the public on paper. Accusations by the mayor that a trio of conservative city councilmen conspired over E-mail to eliminate a human rights commission led to the public airing of private messages. Prodigy, the Sears- and IBM-backed online service, recently weathered yet another E-mail storm when the recipient of a private message that spouted anti-Semitic sentiments attempted to post it to one of the service's public bulletin boards. (Prodigy refused to post the original message or a rebuttal to it in a public area and rew the ire of the Anti-Defamation League.)

E-mail may be as quick and convenient as the phone, but it's not the same. For one thing, it's much easier to capture, reproduce, and repeate an electronic message than it is to do the same with a telephone conversation. In essense, that's what makes possible the ongoing, constantly changing discussions that set E-mail apart. Messages can remain on bulletin boards for days; if someone saves your message to disk, it may never disappear.

What can you do about it? Plenty.

* Never send something you wouldn't have the nerve to say. It's easy to let your emotions run rampant when you can hide behind the impersonal nature of E-mail. If you wouldn't dare say something to someone face to face or on the phone, why say it in a form that's far more permanent?

* Assume that someone is listening. With the exception of Prodigy, which screens messages before they're posted, online and E-mail services promise privacy. Still, if you're sending sensitive information, don't take risks. While the transmitting service may not eavesdrop, it's possible that critical information transmitted via computer could fall into the wrong hands once it reaches its destination.

* Request a receipt. Most E-mail services--MCI Mail and CompuServe, for instance--will, on request, send you a receipt when your message is received and read. Note the time and date the message was read--it's your proof that the message arrived, and it documents who read it.

* Protect your password. Guard any E-mail passwords carefully and change them frequently. If someone uncovers your password and account information, they can assume your electronic identity. That's asking for trouble.

* Consider extraordinary precautions. In some situations, you may not want to transmit "in the clear." For the ultimate in security, put the information in a file, encrypt that file with a data-security program, and then send it.

>From the common sense to the clandestine, these E-mail security techniques could save you from embarrassment or even save your job.

Getting It and Keeping It

You'll want to make sure that you get the information you need in the most economical and efficient way possible and, once you have it, make sure that you keep it for your own use, secure from virus infestation and hardware failure, and out of the wrong hands.

You may be at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing the files compiled from your driver's license, warranty cards, and catalog purchases, but you're certainly not an underdog when it comes to culling and securing information.

All you need are the tools and techniques, the strategies and systems to manage and protect your lifeblood in this Information Age.