Silicon Insider: Hijacked on the Information Superhighway

April 21, 2005 -- -- Sometimes the simplest questions are the best ones.

We tend to get so bound up in the complexities and nuances of a problem that we are left standing in mute, stunned amazement when some kid asks why the Emperor is buck naked.

Right now, as I type this column on my IBM laptop, in Internet Explorer, which connects to my Comcast Broadband, the left column, where the "Favorites" list is supposed to be, has been hijacked by an alternate listing. This listing, which comes up every time I link to a new site, changes regularly. Right now it is listing correspondence courses and home education programs. The other day, while my oldest son was researching the Battle of Shiloh, it promoted a list of porn sites.

I respond to it, like most people, by studiously ignoring it -- which means that every time I want to jump to another site, I click on the "Favorites" star icon, jump to the new site, then watch the phony list pop up again. How often do I do this each day? Oh, probably 50 times. There's nothing I can do about my AOL e-mails, which now automatically highlight key words ("adult," "business," etc.) as links to advertisers -- I can only hope the recipients of my mail don't actually link to them.

Meanwhile, every time I turn on my computer, I'm hit with a series of alerts from my McAfee security software that some of my key Windows files have been corrupted by viruses, which in turn have been safely deleted -- until the next time. The McAfee software always offers to check the rest of my programs, which I do regularly, but the problem is never found. Microsoft chimed in by downloading its security software into my computer as well -- but it hasn't done much good.

Spam Is the Enemy of Productivity

Since I started typing this column today, my work has been halted six times by pop-ups, which appear on my screen unannounced and block my view. Some I can remove by clicking on the x-box in the corner of the window, others try to trick me by using multiple windows, or pretending to be, ironically, anti-pop-up software. I could, in theory, block all of these pop-ups, but then I would spend an equal amount of time each day unblocking them to get to the contents of certain Web sites.

Every couple of months, I take my computer down to Daniel, a Korean computer genius, who charges me a hundred bucks or so -- more than my 2-year-old computer is probably worth -- to scour my computer of all viruses and spyware. My newly cleaned machine then runs like a bat out of hell for about a week before new viruses and spyware begin to gum it up once again. I intend to take my computer to Daniel again this afternoon, as soon as I finish typing this.

My wife hasn't been so lucky. Except for e-mails, she scrupulously avoids the Internet, fearing that a virus will attack the household and tax records that reside in her laptop. However, the other day, my oldest son, whose Alienware machine has completely crashed (another C-note to Daniel) asked her if he could use her computer to download some guitar tabs.

What happened next even Daniel can't explain. No sooner had my son clicked on the site than my wife's computer was hit with a program of unprecedented virulence. Within seconds, it was literally impossible even to turn on the computer without having the screen overrun by dozens of windows of spam, offering everything from real estate to some of the nastiest porn images imaginable -- all for the edification of my 14-year-old (thank God it wasn't my 9-year-old).

It took Daniel, who had never seen such a mess, hours to clean that one up -- even as he was destroying one nest of viruses another one would crop up. By the time he was finished, the final count was more than 20,000 infections. Another C-note to Daniel.

So, here is my simple question: Why is this happening?

Once a Nuisance, Now an Epidemic?

I have no doubt that millions of other people are going through the same experience that I am. Why are we allowing it to happen? I'm sure there are a few idiots out there who actually fall for spam -- and, given the amazing economies of the Web, where it costs no more to pitch 10 million suckers than it does 10, these morons subsidize the assault on us all.

I'm also sure there is an acculturation factor. To those of us who have been on the Net for years, spam and spyware began as minor nuisances, like the first snails in the spring, that we accepted as part of doing business. Now that they have bred by the thousands and threaten to overrun the garden, we still can't shake the mindset that they are still a minor matter. And so, unwittingly, we waste more and more time each workday swatting at these mosquitoes, slathering ourselves with insecticide and swallowing malaria pills.

But surely the misery factor has now reached the point where something must be done. This assault on personal computer users and Web surfers, this defiling of the whole Internet experience, is no longer a nuisance -- if my life is any indication, it is now a serious challenge to our national productivity. These parasites threaten the entire digital revolution, turning what should be an empowering experience into a soul-crushing, time-wasting, profit-burning slog through endless billboards and hucksters just to get to the library or a favorite shop.

Even Microsoft, which I hold in large part responsible for this disaster -- it had enough capital to crush Netscape, but not enough to build an impervious operating system? -- recognizes the problem, and has stepped up with free security software for Windows users. The Feds, as usual, talk a lot, but do almost nothing.

Meanwhile, the sleazeballs get ever more brazen. A few months ago I wrote about a spyware company that was hijacking people's online searches. A number of blog sites picked up the story and ran with it. Now, from what I read, they are getting threatening letters from this outfit not to use the word "spyware" in describing it. Thus, the online world in 2005 is beginning to resemble Cicero, Ill., in 1929.

Viruses Could Cripple Crucial Computer Systems

Where are the cops? Where are the class-action lawyers? Where are the vigilantes? Where is the ACLU? If three people poison themselves because a warning label is missing from a bottle of cleaning fluid, you can guarantee that a lawsuit in the name of endless John Does will be filed within hours in 40 jurisdictions around the country. But if three people die in emergency rooms because the doctors can't call up toxicology reports on their virus-riven handhelds, then the perpetrators get away scot-free.

If I'm driving down the highway and somebody jumps in my car and wrestles away the steering wheel to drive me someplace I don't want to go, that's carjacking -- a felony. If somebody hangs around the schoolyard and shows my kids dirty pictures or offers them cigarettes, they get arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. If they break into my house while I'm writing this column and destroy my typewriter and harass me and prevent me from completing my work before deadline, they are in violation of the First Amendment -- a federal crime. And if they intentionally interfere with my ability to run my business, send me false invoices and orders, destroy my mail, try to con me, and interrupt my operations, they are liable to be charged with a whole raft of violations, including RICO, restraint of trade, U.S. mail regulations, etc., etc.

But if, by comparison, I'm driving down the information highway, my car can be hijacked with impunity. In my virtual office, I can be subject to every con man on earth, my mail rifled through or destroyed, and my business either restrained or subverted. And my kids, on the way to virtual school, virtual movie theater or virtual mall, can be introduced to the wonders of bestiality, steroids and international grifters -- without consequences to the criminals.

The penumbra of privacy now extends in American life everywhere from the womb to the bedroom. Why isn't my personal computer, now such an integral part of my professional and personal life, tucked within that emanation. Why are my genitals protected, but my imagination is not?

So why is this happening? Why is the SEC more worried about mergers between dinosaurs than this terrifying challenge to free trade and national productivity? And why aren't attorneys going after these scumbags rather than some phony obesity claim against McDonald's? And most of all, why aren't we screaming louder for help?

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor at large of Forbes ASAP magazine. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 20 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury-News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He has hosted two national PBS shows: "Malone," a half-hour interview program that ran for nine years, and in 2001, a 16-part interview series called "Betting It All: The Entrepreneurs." Malone is best known as the author of a dozen books. His latest book, a collection of his best newspaper and magazine writings, is called "The Valley of Heart's Delight."