Surfing the High Seas
When the toss-up is free stuff versus privacy, a number of us would prefer to make off with the booty.
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Call them white lies, if it makes you feel better. We're all guilty of them--all guilty of lying online to protect what we believe to be our privacy. I tell them when I type that I make under $17,000 a year and that my name--like I'm suddenly Zorro or Cher or Madonna--is simply M. Online privacy has always been, and remains, an enormous, touchy issue, and in light of the Recording Industry Association of America's piracy accusation against Napster.com, it has taken on still another layer of complexity.

Faster than anyone could say "Shiver me timbers," Napster became the online name for deliciously free stuff. Its unique beauty is that it operates not on a gorged jukebox server but instead on the resources of its users, who don't need to own the CDs to listen to them but only the patience to let Napster (or Macster) find another user to copy them from. Napster sends its little tentacles out in every direction, searching the MP3 databases on the hard drives of its users via their static or dynamic IP address, to find whatever song you're looking for. Glorious free music for the price of enduring a download.

And yet, it's those little tentacles, those roaming fingers allowed in through your computer's Internet protocol port that are the problem--or rather, the question: How safe is all this? I certainly don't know how to reconfigure a system into snooping through anyone's non-MP3 files, but if some 15-year-old knows how to botch up eTrade and CNN for a day, then I'm guessing someone knows; I'm guessing it's possible.

"Anything's possible," says David Mitchell, network administrator at Freedom Technology Media Group, when questioned about those poor souls not tucked safe and sound behind a firewall. "There's always a way. NT has backdoors in it, Microsoft has backdoors--nothing is completely secure."

Enter: trust--key ingredient to privacy. Just as when I leave the key for the plumber I expect that he's fixing my clogged tub, not rifling through my underwear drawer, I expect that when I open my hard drive to Napster, some hacker isn't getting into my other files. It's agreed that granting a system the OK to come in and have a look around just feels inherently wrong, but the surprising fact is, lots of people don't really care--not when there's free stuff on the line. It took AOL 12 years to acquire 9 million users; Napster did it in 6 months. Where once we were so protective, we--droves of us--are suddenly willing to compromise.

According to Forrester Research, I'm not the only one redefining trust. A September 1999 study revealed that "while only 9 percent of wired consumers feel that the benefits of giving out information online outweigh their concerns... 30 percent of consumers will trade personal information for a chance to win something on the Web, while one-fourth want coupons or special offers." That's a significant number of people trusting what goes on beyond their computer screens.

"There are security questions whenever you open your hardware up to a network, says Sarah Andrews, a policy analyst at Electronic Privacy Information Center. "People think they're doing stuff anonymously... but [they] can always be tracked down." That has proven to be exactly the case. Metallica--one of the bands none too thrilled with Napster--has identified the IP addresses and user names of over 335,000 users and demanded that Napster disable them. "It's a significant thing," says Andrews, "that they're taking it seriously and potentially going after individual users, who are really the pirates."

It'll be interesting to see where the new compromises finally fall in the continued exploration of this medium. Remember: Back in its day, the VCR faced the Supreme Court before it was legalized. In their search for treasure, a few folks just might get washed away in the evolutionary tides.

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