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Friday, 22 November, 2002, 10:21 GMT
A question of trust
Bill Thompson, BBC
Microsoft plans for a online archive of our lives are a bit too much for technology consultant Bill Thompson.

Sometimes things happen at the same time for a reason. Jung called it synchronicity and claimed that ordinary coincidences were nothing of the sort.

For him, they expressed deeper patterns in our inner lives. He believed careful analysis could uncover the deeper meaning in coincidence, because the ones we notice are, by definition, significant.

So what are we to make of two stories which appeared within hours of each other on Thursday. The first was of a new research project from Microsoft that will - so it claims - create a 'back-up brain' that will store and catalogue all aspects of a person's digital life.

The second warned any and all users of the Windows operating system earlier than Windows XP that a serious security hole in Internet Explorer left their computers open to any hacker or script kiddie who felt like breaking into random PCs over the internet.

The two seem to me to express the two extremes of our current attitude to computers and the internet.

Cheap memory

On the one hand we look forward to some techno-utopian wired world. On the other we are being bombarded with viruses, worms and intrusion attempts.

Computer menu
Do you want your life on computer?
Normally we keep the two separate. I will talk for hours about the joys of the connected life and ignore the fact that my new Sony J70 phone sometimes crashes on me, just like any other computer.

The MyLifeBits project for downloading your life to disk certainly has some elements of interest.

The mere fact that data storage is now so frighteningly cheap - prices of around 200 per thousand gigabytes were quoted - that it would be feasible to store every e-mail, list every web page visited, record every phone call or meeting and keep a copy of every digital photo taken, is certainly enthralling.

I remember one of my university lecturers back in 1984 dreaming of the day when he would have a whole megabyte of memory on his computer, and how that would transform the world of computing.

Now my laptop is struggling to get by on a mere 128Mb, the same as my friend Simon's new Orange SPV smartphone. We now have the ability to store as much data as we produce, and that is surely a good thing.

Trusting Microsoft

Yet I cannot help but worry that while some of the bright people at Microsoft research are proposing to store all of this data their colleagues over in the operating system department cannot reliably get all the bugs out of their main products.

If the tens of thousands of person years that went into writing and testing Windows XP were not enough to spot a problem in a central part of the program, the Data Access Component, then what is the point of dreaming such big dreams?

Utopian ideas that we can all somehow put total faith in our computers are pushed on an unsuspecting public

It gets worse. The nature of the bug in Internet Explorer means that it cannot actually be permanently fixed without making it impossible to access large numbers of websites that have relied on using Microsoft servers and Microsoft's non-standard web technology in the past.

This means that a really malicious hacker could set up a website which makes a fixed system vulnerable again, and then uses the security hole to take over the exposed computer and do things like trash the hard drive or steal confidential data.

I am sure you can see why the prospect of entrusting Microsoft - or a system running on Microsoft's software - with every detail of my personal life and business dealings fills me with fear.

The company has issued 65 security bulletins this year and new holes in its systems are discovered on a weekly basis.

There is no indication yet that the recently announced commitment to building secure and reliable systems is having an effect on the quality of the software being written.

Utopian ideas that we can all somehow put total faith in our computers are pushed on an unsuspecting public.

Serious about security

It is not fair to pick only on Microsoft here, of course. Apple has its own share of programming errors in MacOS, and GNU/Linux is far from bug-free.

Computer keyboard
Do you have faith in your computer?
The problem is that we do not know how to write error-free code.

Some military systems are written using formal methods in such a way that their operation can be guaranteed and their security can be proven, but no commercial software developers can afford the time and effort it takes to do this.

Until we start taking this a lot more seriously, however, I for one will be very resistant to efforts to persuade me to back up my life onto a hard disk somewhere.

I do not want to wake up one morning and find that an enthusiastic hacker has either inadvertently deleted my past or, worse, has mixed my memories up with someone else.

I have enough trouble remembering who I want to be today without Microsoft adding to the confusion.

Your comments about Bill's column:

To err is human. To foul things up completely takes a computer, programmed by humans. If nothing else, this situation confirms the status of humanity as the species most likely to get in its own way when doing anything. All the threats facing the security of our world and I can guess that what finally takes us out will be complete and total ineptitude.
Nik, UK

The idea of having my entire life recorded on a storage device begs the question of who will do what with the data when I'm no longer around? And most importantly, if all my memories are stored on this disk, how will I remember where I put the disk?
Dominic Jackson, UK

All software has bugs and security holes. But Microsoft is an easy target to find such security holes due to the popularity of their software and the vast network of which Microsoft provides. It is only natural that more bugs and vulnerabilities will be found.
Alister, UK

One of the important aspects of being human is to be able to mollify the memory of our errors. Biographies filtered through human eyes and minds are one thing. Making unfiltered records of our lives may not be such a desirable ability and might turn out to be down right boring.
Stan Novak, USA

It's all a bit creepy. Our cell phones track us, our credit cards do the same, what is the point in living if you're life is absorbed by cheap memory to be abused by any future authoritarian regime, be it a government, religious or corporate entity. And I bet this will be forced on us by the use of lowering premiums on insurances - 50% off if you have Microsoft Life Writer. Show them your car accident was not your fault. Is life getting any better?
Rich, UK

Pencil and paper never crashes ... and as yet has never been hacked
Micah, USA

No, Alister, that comment kinda misses the point. All the money Microsoft throw at marketing and PR would be better spent on a thorough audit of all their software components. I mean, this vulnerability in MDAC goes back several generations. Mere ubiquity of their products does not justify an obvious lack of care to details.
Malik, Bermuda

I am more worried by the prospect of the Palladium chip. One may choose or not choose to store details on the product mentioned in this article, but the Palladium if introduced, will soon be a standard feature of many websites. Does this mean the open source community has to wait many months before it can use these services?
Alan, UK

The considerable number of security holes and inevitable fixes that are released by Microsoft is an inherent limitation of the closed-source programming model. Because there is no independent scrutiny of the code many bugs which could have been picked up before a commercial release have not been picked up. GNU/Linux isn't perfect by any means, but if I were to find a bug in it, I can analyse the source code and find out what the problem is, and with sufficient research and programming knowledge I might be able to fix it and thus benefit the community as a whole.
Chris Bagnall, UK

Concerns about flawed Microsoft technology aside,I'm afraid I have to confess that I don't understand the appeal of creating a remote meta-file of my life memories and activities in the first place. Quite frankly, the very idea (and all its implications) scares the heck out of me. I'm highly comfortable with technology and the conveniences which reliance on computers has brought into my life, so I think I'm open to persuasion on this point; but as it now stands, it seems that the most effective, and secure, memory storage device ever invented is the one we carry around in our heads and hearts.
Sarah, USA

Just because it's possible to do something, does that mean you must do it? What would be the possible use of all this digital detritus. Who would want it when I am gone? No doubt Microsoft will then sell "invaluable" software to retrieve and make sense of our digital trail. Take a cue from the Life Laundry and reduce the digital clutter.
Richard Frost, UK

The day we find a cure for the common cold will be the day in which we should demand there be no more bugs in technology systems. Also, the day societies are fixed where no one uses anything for the purposes of harm will be the day we should demand that technology becomes secure. You can't separate tools from users. But then I guess the day we all agree will be the day there's nothing left to talk about too!
Justin, UK

This would have to be a spin-off of the much debated trustworthy computing model touted by Microsoft recently. If, eventually, you can store your own data securely and reliably, then you can do many new things with your PC. I don't quite understand the aversion to dreaming big dreams.
dan, US

True, no-one can put their hand on their heart and swear that their software is bug-free. However, it is the "cannot actually be permanently fixed" bit for which Microsoft deserves the severest slapping. A lesson to us all on the perils of proprietary protocols, I think. Otherwise, it would just be a matter of uninstalling the buggy software and replacing it with something more secure from another vendor.
Chris, UK

No, I won't trust Microsoft - or any other single organisation - to store my personal data. Whether or not that organisation is driven by the profit motive, or not. You can see where this is leading, quite apart from the privacy aspect. There will be pressure from government agencies to open up the database for the purpose of keeping tabs on your private affairs. There will be corporate pressure to open up the database so that the marketing lobby can try to sell us yet more gubbins. As yet, there is no need for this "service". When there is, it should be operated by a large number of non-profit-making organisations, spread across the world so as to be effectively free of controls by national governments, who must make all data available only to the owner and his/her legal representatives.
Brian Beesley, UK

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology

See also:

21 Nov 02 | Technology
20 Nov 02 | Technology
17 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
21 Dec 01 | Science/Nature
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