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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[August 14, 2002]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions

Net Force Or Net Farce?

I'm not much of a TV watcher, nor am I a Tom Clancy fan. It's not that I think there's anything wrong with Tom Clancy, but I prefer my science fiction with a little more futurism and a little less turbo-testosterone. I did, however, watch the recently screened made-for-television version of Tom Clancy's Net Force. It was less a matter of choice and more a result of being too tired and lazy to get up off the couch to fish the remote control out from under a stack of junk mail.

For anyone who missed the TV version or didn't read the book, here's the synopsis-in-a-can. The year is 2010, and the Internet is the only method of conducting business, entertainment, transportation and communication. Nothing operates free of the Web: traffic control; police, fire and emergency response; artificial intelligence; voice communications; virtual-reality-facilitated "face-to-face" meetings; the global finance market; medical processes; air trafficit's a world in which basic human decision-making seems to have been rendered helpless without the Internet. (One might argue that we've already arrived at that scenario, but that's another story.)

To maintain order in this Web-enabled world, the FBI has created a special branch called the Net Force, a group of technically superior ber-Geeks who protect the whole system from Bad Guys. (In the TV version, everyone who works for Net Force is buff, stylishly dressed, fantastically coiffed, supremely attractive and always lip-glossedthis may be the most science fiction element of the whole story.) In any case, the Bad Guys begin causing chaos, as Bad Guys will do, and the world goes haywire during subsequent attacks: road traffic slows to a stand-still, urban chaos results, financial markets implode, patients die on the operating table and massive power losses occur (though luckily, no catastrophic lip gloss shortage results).

During and after the movie, I couldn't help wondering why a scenario like this would even merit surprise, let alone suspense. This is the equivalent of being startled that you ran out of gas when you failed to fill your tank for several hundred miles.

Let's examine the scenario that could occur between now in 2002, in which some parts of life are facilitated by the Internet, and 2010, when according to Tom Clancy, all aspects of life will be controlled by the Internet.

Microsoft Creates NetPatient, Web-Based Software For Surgical Procedures
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Finkleheimer, I tried very hard to save your husband, but just at the moment I was about to remove his gallbladder, NetPatient's customized surgery plan froze and then the whole system crashed. We tried to control-alt-delete Mr. Finkleheimer, but his program was not responding. Please accept my condolences."

The Air-Traffic Control System Forms An Alliance With AOL
"Roger, flight 2233, you are a go for an approach to O'Hare runway number 7. Flight 67, you are approved for an approach to runway number 7no, waitthere's another"

Cheerful AOL Voice: "Good-bye!"

"Tower, this is flight 67hello? Are you there? You said runway 7, correct?"

Bored Teenagers Have Nothing To Do In The Summer Months
"Dear Citizens of Planet Earth: We, the Global Light & Power Company, do apologize for the five-week power outage experienced through most of Western Europe, the entire North American continent and the Horn of Africa. It appears that a 14-year-old boy in Cleveland thought it would be groovy to launch a denial-of-service attack against the servers that control our gridthings should be sorted out within the next month. Please be patient."

Goods In Transit Disappear Into The Mist
The U.S. Department of Agriculture issues a formal apology to the families of the 972 people who died of E. coli poisoning, explaining that because of slow Web traffic, officials failed to realize that 1,500 pounds of ground beef on its way from the meat packing plant in Dallas to a Wal-Mart super store in Minneapolis sat in the Texas sun at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport for 17 hours.

Hackers Cause Big Business To Lose Trillions Each Year
"Bert the Broker, I instructed you to sell my 5,000,000 shares of Zippy-Doo, Inc. stock when it dropped below $229 a share. Now it's at eight cents a share and you never sold it. I'm ruined!"

"Sorry, sir, but when I tried to access the trading system, it had been hacked by porn spammers and all I could see was a Web site offering pictures of Naughty College Co-Eds In Saran Wrap."

Human Errors Go Untraced For Dangerous Periods Of Time
Jim the Military Leader: "Hello, State Department? U.S. forces are under attack by a rogue group of Nepalese Yak Farmer Rebels. Why haven't you sent us the codes to launch the yurt-flattening missiles on them?"

State Department: "We did send the codes! Aren't you [email protected]?"

Jim the Military Leader: "No! No! I'm [email protected]!"

ATM Machines Indiscriminately Spill Money
"Agnes, I know we've been married for 50 wonderful years, and I said I'd always take care of you, but our life savings has disappeared due to a database error. I don't think we're going to be able to survive on what we've gotwait! Is that ATM machine spewing $100 bills?

With all due respect to Tom Clancy, the world he envisions in Net Force scares me a bit. I won't even put a credit card number onto the Internet today in 2002. Chances are good in the next eight years, nothing is going to happen that will change my mind and make me feel happy to Web-enable my health, my safety, my finances and my personal information. Not with the major players still squabbling over who owns instant messaging, how long to archive sent messages and how the CEO can come clean about the hidden corporate balance sheet losses without losing the villa in Tuscany.

On a final note, I highly doubt that if such a scenario occurs, our Net Force agents will be much like Scott Bakula, an intelligent and intense techno-genius, trotting around the country with his concerned frown and toned physique. When I think of an FBI branch dedicated to Internet security, I can't help but conjure up images of bored, under-trained agents shooting rubber bands at one another and arguing over whose turn it is to bring in the doughnuts, while the Bad Guys download Fort Knox into their personal underground bunkers.

But maybe I'm just a cynic.

The author may be contacted at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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