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Frozen out

Technology | An emerging privacy option called the security freeze gives people a tool to keep identity thieves away from their credit histories

Issue: "2004 Olympics Preview," Aug. 14, 2004

An emerging privacy option called the security freeze gives people a tool to keep identity thieves away from their credit histories. It lets people block access to their credit reports until they contact the credit bureaus themselves and provide a PIN code.

The FTC reports that in 2002, thieves used data leeched from 3.2 million Americans to open new accounts or loans. By blocking access to credit records with a security freeze, a person can stop criminals from opening fraudulent accounts in his name. Yet reporting agencies call it overkill, arguing that security freezes prevent users from gaining instant approvals via an electronic credit check.

Yet the scheme has one obvious benefit: If a thief tries to open an account in the name of a person with frozen records, the application will be rejected. (The individual can lift the freeze for a certain creditor-such as a bank or credit card issuer-or for a certain period of time.)

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So far, security freezes are only available in parts of the country. California and Texas allow them now, while Louisiana and Vermont will adopt them next year. Few people use them right now (about 2,000 in California and 150 in Texas) because they are little publicized. In the case of Texas and Vermont, the option is available only to those who have already been victimized.

Gates closing?

Bill Gates wants to convince the world that Microsoft is more than just operating systems. At a financial conference, he tried to convince investors that the world's most powerful software company can still innovate, despite complaints that the markets for Windows and Office are oversaturated.

Mr. Gates said Microsoft will apply for about 3,000 new patents in this fiscal year. He also explained that the company is giving more attention to consumer lines like MSN and the Xbox, because home users adopt new technology more quickly than corporations. Microsoft also wants to take on Google's search dominance. A new program that can quickly dig through both personal files and the web is set for release next year.

Yet Wall Street has a big reason for concern about Microsoft, which is currently the third-largest stock in the Standard & Poor's 500 index. Its stock has floated around $25 per share for several years.

Microsoft's flagship Windows line still safely dominates the desktop, but the long-awaited next version is still unfinished. Mr. Gates announced that a test version of the new product, known currently by the code name "Longhorn," should be available next year-and the official launch is set to follow in 2006.

Bits & Megabytes

  • Apple CEO Steve Jobs says he expects a full recovery following treatment for a rare form of pancreatic cancer. He issued a public statement saying he did not need chemotherapy and would be back to work in September. Mr. Jobs co-founded Apple in 1976, left the company a year after the Mac's 1984 introduction, then returned in 1997.
  • VoteHere, a Washington-based software firm, released proprietary code for its electronic balloting system-and encouraged geeks to test it for holes. The patented election security designs were published as an apparent attempt to convince critics of e-voting's viability. Company founder Jim Adler says he wants the ability to detect fraud if it happens.
  • DSL, mp3, and information technology are among the words joining the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. The word mp3, which only dates back to the mid-1990s, is a remarkably young addition to the abridged dictionary. Editors update the volume annually and make major revisions every decade.

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