What We Should Learn from "Bad Tech August"


August was a bad month for IP telephony users running Skype , users of Sony USB fingerprint readers , some users of Microsoft Windows XP and Vista, jobseekers using Monster.com , and users of Google Video's download to rent or buy services . Even if you're saying "no problems here," think of August's bad technology events as the equivalent of a canary in a coal mine: the canary keels over at the first whiff of bad air to warn the miners that something's wrong. Similarly, this quintet of technology-based problems may forshadow problems for everyone down the pike. Fortunately, you can take action to save yourself some grief.

Canary Number 1: "Nobody's in Charge Here."

Skype's problems reveal the big weakness of peer-to-peer and distributed networking (Skype's design includes features of both): no central server's in charge of load balancing and keeping the system running. Although Skype recovered after a couple of days of users' inability to logon to the network, untold amounts of business were lost, not to mention misunderstandings between friends, romantic breakups ("why didn't you call - why didn't you call?"), and missed reminders to pick up some bread and milk on the way home

Your escape route: While it's up to vendors to make sure their P2P networks can handle whatever happens (Skype's already made changes to stop the next "perfect storm" in its tracks), if  you're not satisfied with how your P2P client handles unusual circumstances - switch to a different product.

Canary Number 2: "Free Can Cost You - Big Time"

Skype's problems reveal a second canary. If you rely on a free (or almost free) service, what happens when that service is out to lunch for a while?

Your escape route: Whether it's VoIP, email, or some other communications service, you'd better have a backup plan in case your primary communication service goes down.

Canary Number 3: "Vendors Are Looking Out for Number 1 (Hint: It Might Not Be You)"

The needs of legitimate customers sometimes fall far below other concerns for big companies. Sony's boneheaded decision to use rootkit-like technology in the software for their MicroVault USM-F fingerprint readers provides an abundant demonstration, but they're not alone. Consider the 12,000 or so users of Microsoft operating systems who were left wondering (temporarily) what was wrong with their copies of Windows XP and Vista when Microsoft's activation/validation server also went down August 24-25.

Your escape route: I've proposed a "Bill of Rootkit Rights" , but don't hold your breath waiting for vendors to comply. Instead, you may want to vote with your wallets. If you don't buy hardware or software that uses rootkits, activation, or validation, vendors may get the message (especially if you tell them why you chose another product). We want secure products and want to see vendors get paid for their work - but there has to be a better way than creating virus infection vectors or preventing you from getting full use of the software you've paid for.

Canary Number 4: "Even if they know your name, don't trust them."

The data-theft attack on Monster.com exposed hundreds of thousands of jobseekers to a more insidious form of phishing: personalized phishes. Because the hackers gained access to the job-recruiter side of Monster.com, they were able to create personalized messages that can lull unsuspecting users into clicking their way into financial trouble.

Your escape route: No matter how plausible a message from a financial institution, job hunting site, or other site looks, skip the click and log in yourself. And, expect to see more personalized phishes as time goes by.

Canary Number 5: "You never really own DRM-enabled media."

Google pulled the plug on its video download to own or rent service in August, and terabytes of videos became unplayable as a result. While Google is providing full refunds to its customers and decided to turn its DRM validation servers back on for another six months of playback before the final curtain, the message is clear: DRM means never getting to say "I own it."

Your escape route: Spend a little more and buy non-DRM enabled media. Vendors like Apple and (believe it or not) Wal-Mart now offer MP3-format digital music free of DRM shackles, and more are likely to follow. If you want to see an end to DRM, it's time to vote (again) with your wallets.

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