Vista's Faux Security

An endless series of meaningless choices does not equal privacy, argues a security expert. Nor will they equal security for Vista.
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For those who haven’t had the joy of installing the new Windows Vista operating system, the humor of the latest installment in Apple Computer’s “I’m a Mac; I’m a PC” series of television ads may be lost on you.

But if you’ve ever been asked by a piece of software, your operating system, or a website whether you want to make a choice – without the benefit of any background information or useful context – then you can pretty much get the gist of joke.

The new TV ad, titled “Security,” features the grungy Mac guy standing next to the geeky PC guy, and behind the PC guy is some sort of Secret Service agent in sunglasses and a dark suit.

Every few seconds, the security guard asks PC if he’d like to “cancel or allow” virtually everything PC does: “You are returning Mac’s salutation. Cancel or allow?”

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As the ad goes on, PC gets increasingly frustrated with the repeated questions, when finally PC explains: “I could turn him off, but then he wouldn’t give me any warnings at all and that would defeat the purpose…”

This brand of faux security is well known to privacy folks, because the robot-like process of asking for user authorization has passed as a form of privacy protection for years.

(Before I’m accused of some kind of bias, I should note that I’m not particularly enamored of Mac security, either.)

"Privacy" Features

For nearly a decade, most of the things that have passed for “privacy” features in a wide variety of applications, especially web browsers, have made those applications virtually unusable without choosing the equivalent of “allow” every time you’re asked.

Be it the firewall under Windows XP, or Internet Explorer’s cookie settings, JavaScript enabling, ActiveX components, or “compact privacy policy” settings, those and a host of other applications have asked users to allow various activities, and the vast majority of users choose “allow,” because they really don’t have any other choice.

As we have learned through sad experience in the privacy world, an endless series of meaningless choices and even more meaningless actions do not equal privacy. Nor will they equal security in the world of Vista. Come to think of it, they don’t equal security in airline transportation either, but I digress…

The real concept at work here is less about protecting the privacy or security of the user than it is shifting the blame to them and away from the software creator whose application is about to do something that may be about to compromise the user.

The notion of giving users choices and letting them make their own decisions is fundamentally appropriate. But as with any choice that has significant consequences, no one can be expected to make a sound and reasonable decision without having enough useful information.

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