CueCat scanner simplifies Web surfing, but raises privacy concerns

September 25, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

The mouse on my desktop got a companion this week - the CueCat - and it's a fascinating gadget indeed.

It's 5 inches long and shaped like a stylized feline, ready to pounce, with a mysterious red light emanating from its open mouth. It connects to the keyboard port of my computer with a Y-cable. To get it working I had to install driver software and register on the company's Web site, providing my name, e-mail address, age, sex and ZIP code.

So what do I get for my trouble?

Well, when I rub the CueCat across the Universal Product Code on a box of Glad garbage bags, my Web browser launches and takes me to Glad's home page. Just what I always wanted.

When I swipe it across the bar code under a TV set in Radio Shack's latest catalog, it takes me to the TV page of the Shack's online store. That's actually helpful. When I pass CueCat over a bar code at the bottom of a Forbes magazine article on the WholeHealthMD Web site, it takes me right to the outfit's home page. When I swipe a bar at the bottom of an advertisement, I'm whisked to the company's Web site.

None of this sounds earth-shattering. But a well-funded, Dallas-based start-up called Digital Convergence is betting $100 million that you and I will find the CueCat irresistible. It plans to give away 10 million CueCats by the end of the year - a bold effort to dominate a fledgling market for magazines, newspapers, catalogs and even household products that are Web-activated.

Some people think this is a great idea; others think it's silly. You can get a CueCat free at any Radio Shack store and try it yourself, or DC will send you the gadget for $10 if you visit the company's Web site (www.getcuecat.com). Forbes is sending CueCats to its 750,000 subscribers, as are Wired magazine and the Dallas Morning News. Parade magazine is putting bar code "Cues" in its articles and ads, and other publications are in the pipeline.

Just be aware that CueCat may not be the perfect house pet.

This month, Digital Convergence left the enrollment records of 140,000 users in a temporary, unprotected file that was uncovered by hackers. The company admitted its mistake and closed the security hole.

Meanwhile, Linux developers writing CueCat drivers found that the gadget transmits a unique serial number that could allow Digital Convergence to build a database of users' Web surfing habits and any products they happened to scan.

On Friday the nonprofit Privacy Foundation issued a statement warning consumers about the tracking and asking the company to remove its identifiers and make consumers more aware of the data that are being collected.

Company officials insist they're not using the data to track individual users and have taken great pains to ensure anonymity.

The company is also rattling legal sabers, sending threatening but vaguely worded letters to hardware enthusiasts who adapted the CueCat for their own purposes and posted their plans on the Web. The letters demanded that the information be removed from the Web and charged the mystified recipients with being "in conflict with intellectual property rights owned by Digital Convergence." The letters did not say what those rights were.

So the CueCat has managed to kick up a lot of kitty litter in the month or so it's been around.

Like many stories involving privacy and the right to disseminate information on the Web, this one is complicated. Digital Convergence's top officials were forthright and willing to talk about the issues - they're proud of what they're doing, and not without reason.

Over the past two years, at least four companies have developed technologies for embedding Web information in printed publications. They're driven by the notion that it's hard for readers to find specific pages or products embedded so deep in Web sites that it's impossible to publish their lengthy addresses in print.

For example, the URL for my last column on SunSpot.net looked like this: http://www.sunspot.net/content/news/stor y?section=news-pluggedin&pagename=story&storyid=1150470202938.

Want to try typing that in your browser?

"The problem everybody faces, for all practical purposes, is that the only way to enter a Web site is through the front page," said Michael Garin, DC's president and CEO. That leaves readers searching for specific information wandering around, and research shows that they often give up after three clicks.

The solution, Garin said, is a printed code that can be scanned and transmitted to a server that looks up the proper URL and sends your browser to the appropriate Web page. That page could contain detailed local sports results on a newspaper's Web site or the order form for a specific dress in a department store ad.

CueCat is built around a standard bar code wand, a cheap solution but one that requires a relatively large bar code. Its chief competitor, from GoCode of Charleston, S.C., is a more expensive, pen-shaped scanner that uses a tiny, hieroglyphic "button" that takes up much less space.

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