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Cybernaut

Wild, wild Web

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You’re under arrest.

That’s what the police would be telling you if the authorities really cared enough to find out what you’ve been up to online.

While there may be a few law abiding net-citizens out there, I think the majority of surfer types are probably guilty of breaking one law or another, probably a hundred times over. As a matter of fact, I don’t know one single person who hasn’t been guilty of at least a few infractions.

People download copyrighted music and other files from the Web without paying a dime in royalties. People copy software and games. Some people hack into other sites, or liberally borrow content from the Web to pad their own work.

There are also some truly evil people out there that are in the business of collecting credit card numbers and other secret information for their own nefarious ends. Others write and release destructive viruses into the system.

Although the government does wade into the fray now and then, they’re restricted by due process and the fact that a lot of the companies that make copyrighted materials widely available have deep pockets.

They’re also hampered by the technology, the fact that they can only go after one company at a time, and the sheer magnitude of the problem.

That leaves it up to the music and media companies to fight these battles on their own. They usually win, but the battleground just keeps getting bigger as more people go online and add to the problem. You get rid of one problem and a hundred more jump up to take its place.

It’s comparable to the wild west days, where the only way a sheriff could walk through town without the locals taking pot shots at him would be to turn a blind eye to all but the worst offences. What other choice do you have when you’re out-manned and outgunned?

A single government couldn’t stop illegal Internet activities even if it wanted to. The Web is just too big and too international to monitor everybody.

And that must frustrate the hell out of filmmaker George Lucas.

A week before the official release of Attack of the Clones, his latest Star Wars instalment, Lucas came under attack from a few clones of his own.

Nobody is sure who is responsible for the two different copies of Attack of the Clones ( www.starwars.com ) that surfaced on the Internet, but at least two different individuals somehow got into preview screenings of the movie, set up tripods and cameras, and made their own digital recordings. They then offered the movies online using the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) protocol – www.irc.com – which allows users to connect to other users online, and transfer large files at high speeds.

There’s no way of knowing how many people have actually traded the files, but at last count it was more than 350,000 users.

In the words of the mighty Chewbacca, "Wrrrrrngh!"

The movie will still generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue at the box office, and it’s a safe bet that many of the people who downloaded the pirated Attack of the Clones will probably go to the theatre to see it on the big screen anyway.

So what’s the big deal?

According to Jean Murrell Adams, the head of the litigation department for DreamWorks SKG, the company responsible for the film, the principle of the thing is more disturbing for media companies than the results.

"It is an extremely serious threat," she told Southam reporters. "I’m not surprised that it’s on the Internet. I talk to pirates because I want to find out why they’re doing this. And what I’ve been told is that they were eagerly anticipating who would be first to do this. It’s a challenge for them."

When you look at it, the two or more suspects who copied and distributed Attack of the Clones through IRC didn’t earn a dime for their activities or their hard work. They were both at preview screenings, so you can’t chalk up the piracy to enthusiasm either.

Really the only motive they could have had for stealing the movie was the thrill of the theft and the perception that they had somehow outwitted the power people. They beat Lucas and his Star Wars empire, and they beat the whole Hollywood hype machine at its own game.

The few hackers that have actually been caught and brought to justice all tell a similar story – I did it because I could.

Two hackers who call themselves the Deceptive Duo recently argued that they were doing the U.S. government a favour when they hacked into systems operated by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, the Defense Logisitics Agency, Sandia National Laboratories, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Midewest Express Airlines and a number of prominent banks. They believe their hacking merely exposes the holes that already exist in Internet technology, which subsequently allows network administrators to plug up the gaps in their security.

Right now the Internet is a Wild West, but even that wide open region couldn’t remain untamed forever.

While the capability doesn’t currently exist for governments to curb all of the illegal activities taking place on the Internet, the technology is coming and the political will is building. Hackers like the Deceptive Duo and the large-scale theft of copyrighted materials like Attack of the Clones only speeds up the process. These major infractions could put an end to the minor infractions that are enjoyed by the majority of us. It’s already happening. Major events are having minor repercussions.

Under the guise of the war on terrorism, civil right’s groups are already protesting new laws that violate our freedoms at their most basic levels while giving police extraordinary powers. Because of the very real threat that terrorism poses to the integrity of the Internet, the Web is already being closely scrutinized by security forces.

Wild West could turn into a police state in no time.

Here’s some light reading on the issues of Internet security.

www.attrition.org/~modify/texts/ethics/ – An informative look into the ethics of hackers.

www.aclu.org – This is the official Web site of the American Civil Liberties Union. Check out the Cyber-Liberties section and the 2001 year-in-perspective.

www.ccla.org – The site of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian equivalent of the ACLU.

www.cpcc.ca – The Canadian Private Copying Collective has started a campaign that would add a substantial tariff to the price paid for blank CDs to compensate for the amount of money the industry is losing from MP3s and other transferrable media.

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