Dangers still associated with shopping in cyberspace

August 07, 1998|By Andrew J. Glass

WASHINGTON -- Consider some of the ways the Internet improves our lives.

Here's one: The other day, my son Sam walked into a library building at the University of Heidelberg, sat down at a German computer keyboard, accessed a Yale University e-mail account and exchanged dozens of messages with his college friends, who have scattered for the summer.

German rules

Although students are able to romp in cyberspace for free from Heidelberg, the librarians there insist that visitors check their gear at the door and pay what amounts to a $4 deposit to make sure it's picked up on departure. It's a question of security.

Here's another: A pair of huge, once-valued stereo amplifiers have sat in my attic for years. Recently, within hours of posting those goods on a World Wide Web hi-fi flea market site, I found a buyer in another state.

Since the express company collects the cash on delivering the package, selling the vintage amps to an utter stranger posed little risk to me. But what if that shipment held bricks instead of the advertised goods? Again, it's a matter of trust.

In theory, the Internet can offer users more convenient and flexible ways of exchanging data or buying and selling goods than traditional forms of trade or communication. But broadly felt distrust hampers electronic commerce from reaching its full potential.

As matters stand, it's a snap to upload a "contract" that, for instance, you've agreed to give me free phone service for the next six months. So, absent the safety provided by what insiders call trusted systems, it's understandable that not many of us feel VTC comfortable using e-mail to issue invoices, pay bills or write binding contracts.

What's more, each time a bug is found in Internet software, the confidence needed to create a true mass market is shaken anew.

It happened last month when researchers at Finland's Oulu University came across some fresh digital mischief. It permits e-mail that arrives along with an attached file -- in some situations -- to stall a computer, kill data or unleash a virus.

A software bug

While neither Microsoft nor Netscape had received customer complaints about the vulnerability of their e-mail "clients," both firms promptly moved to patch their exposed software. As is usually the case, the supposed dangers, but not the subsequent fixes, made news.

Foolproof Internet security requires users to implement such related concepts as access control, audit trails, authenticated identities, guaranteed privacy and validity checks that ensure data hasn't been corrupted during transmission or storage. Experts also see a need to bar people from disavowing transactions -- so the assertion that "I never placed that order" flies only if it's accurate.

Here's some good news: All these needs are now being tested in major computer labs. Some of them can already be fully implemented.

Nevertheless, bad vibes continue to float through cyberspace. And, unless human character changes in our digital future, for many people, these concerns are likely to persist.

Andrew J. Glass is a columnist for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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