Features

Native tongue lashing

National | Watch your language on the Net, watch your neighbor via the Net, and who's watching you on the Net?

Issue: "The fall(en) TV season," Sept. 18, 1999

Viva la Net!
Parlez-vous Francais? A group of French lobbyists say that the Internet is destroying their culture with a torrent of Americanisms. The coalition, whose name translates as Defense of the French Language, wants to legally limit English language use in cyberspace just as recently passed laws limit the presence of American songs and shows in French media. They're not kidding. The group claims French-language protection laws should apply to the Net. It won a court case last year against a computer store that sold an English-language software package. It sued Georgia Tech in 1997 for creating an English-language website on Tech's Metz, France, campus. Since the school faced possible fines of up to $4,300 each time the site was hit, officials translated the site into French. The keep-France-French philosophy is well entrenched in law. The French government keeps an index of 120,000 forbidden English words that may not be used in official documents. You can't just "fax," for example, you have to "telecopie" instead. Naturally, such laws don't affect America, but they may hinder some developers from working on an Internet that is increasingly standardized on English. Yet Mr. Dechamps's war may soon be irrelevant. Efforts to let netizens navigate in any language of their choosing are well underway. Microsoft is developing its software so that any user in a network can type and read commands in his native tongue. Online translation services are in the works, but still crude (try http://babelfish.altavista.com for an interesting example). Meanwhile, the rootless, borderless nature of the Net is still developing. scarletletter.com
State police in Oregon want their residents to know where released sex offenders live, so they built a website listing the names, addresses, and photographs of 9,000 predators. But some of the ex-cons filed lawsuits, blocking this month's planned launch. The perps say they are being tagged with a scarlet letter. Their lawyers claim the site doesn't distinguish between hard-core sex criminals and people who committed lesser offenses and wrapped up their cases long ago. How do you separate the college-prank streakers from dangerous pedophiles? "You can bet your bottom dollar that every landlord and every employer will be looking through the Web page," said Philip Lewis, who represents four released sex offenders. "If these people are rehabilitated, why are we doing all this to make their lives worse?" This controversial website is the Oregon police's way of taking Megan's Law into cyberspace. The 1996 statute requires authorities to notify the community when a potential predator moves in. Other states-Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin-have already tried using the Web. The Oregon case could set a precedent on how such sites are handled. Even though civil libertarians are likely to protest them, their deterrent factor is obvious. Unlike handbills or even the daily paper, anybody can access the Internet. A simple keyword search might turn up someone's dark past. And while a policeman knocking on someone's door may leave a lasting impression on a neighborhood, these sites can keep a con worried for years. Cracking the code
A team of Dutch scientists has broken the code used to encrypt millions of Internet transactions every day, from e-mail to credit-card statements. It took a Cray 900-16 supercomputer, 300 personal computers, and specially designed software to open up the so-called RSA-155 code. While this may show a dangerous security bug in electronic commerce, scientists at the National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science say not to worry. Most data is pretty safe-unless the crooks after one's goods use heavy computer firepower. "Your everyday hacker won't be able to do this," said project director Herman te Reile. The RSA-155 crack is the latest shot in the never-ending cold war between code makers and code breakers. Every time a new computer-scrambling technology comes out, a race to crack it starts. From college campuses to research labs, endless schemes are tried to crack the latest formula. Developers even encourage this so they can find bugs they missed before. A whole subculture revolves around building and breaking new codes. In fact, the Dutch group won a contest sponsored by RSA Data Security, a group that wants stronger encryption used on the Net. To crack the code, Mr. te Reile and his team spent six weeks plugging away, receiving help from Microsoft and Sun Microsystems and techies from Britain, Canada, and Australia. The group says that while "many billions of dollars" worth of daily transactions use RSA-155 (the 155 means 155 digits), no reports have surfaced detailing a crook's repeating this code-cracking feat. "But a hacker isn't going to tell us if he's successfully broken the code," Mr. te Reile said. Encryption is important because the Net is bringing what once was considered military-grade security to the home. Numerous online purchases and other sensitive transactions are covered with cryptography. With an ever present threat of bad guys ripping off your business plans, stock information, or even your whole identity, this friendly cat-and-mouse game is critical to the Internet's survival.

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