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Editor's Note: Drawing a Line

Jul 09, 2004, 23:30 (21 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor


It's an issue that many in the Linux community seem particularly sensitive about. Until recently, I was not one of them.

I mean, sure, I was not running around the Internet broadcasting my social security number, date of birth, or blood type, but when I ran across a site that had a little registration page, I gave little thought to filling in some basic data and then moving on to the content I wanted to see.

In my little office, I support those who do not like to register even for something like the NY Times Web site by trying my best to find a wire-service version of the same story to link to. But, I used to quietly roll my eyes at the whole process, wondering how much harm could a little info be?

Then I started hearing about RFID. First, just a little trickle of information. Then, in the last month or so, a lot. It seemed like everyone was coming up to ask me about it. What was it? What did I think about it? What could it do? At first, I gave the standard replies, but as more people kept asking, I began to dig a bit more.

The thing that came up over and over in my reading was this: there are many cool convenient things that RFID will let people do. Like checking out from a grocery store without standing in line. Like managing a supply chain from manufacturer to store. Like knowing where your kids are anytime you want.

Hello? Excuse me? Know where my kids are? Does that mean someone else will know too?

Because all of this convenience comes at a price. You, as a consumer or a business owner or as a private citizen, are going to have to give up a lot of privacy. Someone will know how much I spend on Dr. Pepper. Someone will know when I have left the house. And so forth.

This all may seem like rampant paranoia, and I assure you, it's not rampant. But there is a bit a paranoia there, nonetheless.

RFID is not the beginning of the the loss of privacy. For years, anyone at the bank, if they really wanted to, could see how much I spent at the grocery just by the checks I wrote or the debit transactions I made. But that was not detailed information, and it was not real-time.

Computers have been getting into this, too. One of my peeves about the upcoming Longhorn version of Windows is the proposed automatic updates feature. While I long for faster patches to shut down all the Windows zombies spamming me, a proactive patching system from Redmond Central is not the way I want it.

What prompted this bit of wordage today was the very quiet, very tenative rumblings that someday Linux vendors may go this way, too. As Linux gets more popular with the non-techs, the theory goes, more active methods of patch delivery may be needed to protect systems.

I don't think Linux will need to go down this path. Commercial Linux vendors should remember there are other ways to providing secure systems. Education, better patch announcements, and the already secure nature of Linux can help avoid an automatic update system. Developers in the community would do well to keep these in mind and not trade user convenience for user privacy.

Let users be the judge of what gets updated on their systems, not the software makers.