Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Safety Net

By Ann Mulhearn

AUGUST 4, 1997:  Man, you gotta love the Internet -- virtually free, instantaneous, worldwide delivery from the privacy of your home/cubicle/library terminal. Not even FedEx can beat that deal. With a successful delivery rate that makes the U.S. Postal Service drool, the Internet is a communications godsend.

But how does it work? An explanation can get bogged down in techno-babble, so this will be Internet for the real world. You have a computer that has a modem. That modem calls another computer, which is configured as a server. This bigger, better, faster server is connected to the "backbone" of the Internet (really just a super-high-speed connection over a high-quality phone line). The server waves its magic wand and voila! You are now connected to the Internet through the server.

This is where it gets a little surreal. When you send an e-mail message or transfer a file via this connection, it is miraculously broken apart into "packets" and tagged with little identifiers. These packets are sent scurrying along everyday phone lines, randomly bouncing across the globe from server to server on the Internet, searching for a path to the destination tagged in the identifiers. Once all the packets reach the destination (independent of each other), they reassemble, and are displayed as an e-mail message or a file -- sort of like the transporters on Star Trek.

Wow. Pretty incredible. All through phone lines found in practically every house in America. But I can pick up my neighbors' phone conversations every other day! Is there a chance someone else could capture my e-mail message as it bebops across the globe and read it?

Technically, but it would be pretty difficult. The paths packets travel are totally random, utterly dependent on chance and traffic. One minute, your e-mail could see Singapore; 30 seconds later, another message might not leave your hometown. Unless it is intercepted before it leaves your Internet Service Provider's (ISP) server or as it reaches the destination server, it's practically impossible to successfully cull e-mail en route.

If you are really that worried about the security of your personal mail, there are a few precautions you can take. Software packages such as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) and Private Idaho can encode your messages, rendering them incomprehensible until they are completely reassembled at their destination. There are also sites set up across the Internet that serve as anonymous e-mailers. They essentially take your e-mail, strip any identifying characteristics from it, and replace them with generic information from their server. Your message gets where it's going just fine, only no one knows whence it came.

That's good to know. So all those e-mails I wrote to a co-worker at the office critiquing the boss' taste in ties are fairly secure, right?

Not by a long shot! Correspondence within a private network, or an intranet, is wide open. Not only is a copy archived somewhere on a tape backup and on your machine, but there are umpteen software packages that system administrators can seamlessly install on a network that monitor who is sending what to whom and when. Don't even think about claiming invasion of privacy; those computers are the property of the company, and the nasty notes were most likely written on company time and are considered the company's intellectual property anyway.

Man! There go the promotion and Christmas bonus. At least, assure me that ordering something on the Internet is safe.

Well, as safe as it is to order Box Car Willie's Greatest Hits from an 800-number you see at 4 a.m. on public access. World Wide Web sites are now able to offer secure transactions, primarily through the use of encryption software. But according to Dave Barger, president of local ISP LunaWeb, when given a choice between a secure and non-secure transaction, most users opt for the non-secure form.

"More people are coming to realize the security offered by the Internet is in many cases greater than they find when they give their credit card to a waiter at a restaurant," said Barger. "As a result, Internet commerce is growing."

The innocuous encryption methods used in secure transactions have helped generate over $1.5 trillion (yes, you read that correctly) of commerce a year. They also are a flashpoint of debate between the U.S. Internet community and its government. Software developers are eager to export their encryption packages to the hordes of international users who look to the U.S. as a leader in this emerging field. Apparently, this veneration is well-founded. The American-made products are so reliable that the U.S. government is attempting to block export, afraid drug cartels, terrorists, and other nefarious creatures will use the software to cover their cyber tracks.

As the encryption debate rages, storefronts and Internet malls are springing up hither and yon, all begging to take your money, encrypted or not. Some even take eCash.

eCash? Let me guess -- "e" for electronic cash, right?

Yep, there is now an alternative to traditional commerce on the Internet. Still in the trial stages, eCash requires proprietary software that serves as a "bank account." You go to a store that accepts eCash (denoted by a colorful logo prominently displayed at the site), choose your purchases, click a few buttons on your side of the virtual counter, and the store receives your payment. The eCash transfer is magically credited to the store's account in its version of the software. When an eCash user is ready to cash in her chips, it goes to a clearinghouse of sorts that converts eCash to real currency. No fraudulent use of credit card numbers, no mailing the check and waiting six to eight weeks for delivery.

The reliability, versatility, and global scope of the Internet are quickly transforming it from a passing techno marvel to an integral part of daily life. With technology outpacing itself, an ever-increasing level of security features within Internet software will relieve the few security concerns left. Porting the technology to private intranets is giving a whole new meaning to business connections. But watch what you type at work -- are you sure your boss wants to know what you really think of her? She might just pull your plug!

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