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Number lock

Technology | For an extra charge, AOL offers a gadget that displays a six-digit code that changes from minute to minute for more secure logins

Issue: "Kerry praying for votes," Oct. 9, 2004

America Online now offers something more than passwords to protect user accounts. For an extra charge, AOL offers a gadget that displays a six-digit code that changes from minute to minute.

These matchbook-sized devices, made by RSA Security, resemble those often used on sensitive corporate or institutional networks. A user must enter the six-digit code displayed on the device to login-and the number changes often enough to discourage eavesdroppers and snoops.

These optional security codes will not affect all internet access. They only protect AOL's proprietary online service, not outside websites. Curiously, AOL Instant Messenger will also be unprotected.

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The extra service costs $1.95 per month, plus a one-time $9.95 fee. AOL hopes to attract a niche group of subscribers-small-business owners, identity-theft victims, and those who make many online transactions-for the premium service. The move could spur other major internet service providers to follow suit, possibly with their own numeric codes, fingerprint scanners, or smart cards.

Editors at large

A new online medium allows anyone with an internet connection the opportunity to be an editor. Known as a wiki, this new type of reference seeks to combine the expertise of large groups.

Each wiki (the word is derived from wiki wiki which means "quick" in Hawaiian) is like the whiteboard in a virtual conference room, where all participants get markers to add their own contributions. Any user can add, edit, and erase text on the page. "You can feel like your voice is just as loud and your opinion is worth as much as everyone else," said John Bobowicz, founder of several wikis.

The concept dates back to 1995 and is now used for everything from software manuals to cookbooks. The Wikipedia, a huge virtual encyclopedia, has 350,000 English entries and over 25,000 contributors. Dozens of users patrol the collection, trying to stop vandalism.

Wikis have disadvantages, though, including the domination of groupthink. (A user's addition must be acceptable to others or else they will erase it.) Wikis also lack staff researchers, copy editors, fact checkers, and others who help ensure that a published text is accurate. Spammers have also invaded many wikis.

Bits & Megabytes

  • British billionaire Richard Branson plans to launch passenger space flights in 2007, offering to shoot riders 80 miles into the sky for a fare of nearly $200,000. Dubbed "Virgin Galactic," this service hopes to recruit 3,000 civilian astronauts (all of whom will need only three days of in-flight training before launch) over five years. Mr. Branson will license the technology from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who has invested heavily in private space flight.
  • Google admitted that its Chinese-language news search site omits media banned by Communist authorities on the mainland, despite the company's slogan, "Do no evil." The new service, launched last month, trolls about 1,000 other sites. Google says it blocks the forbidden news outlets because those links would go nowhere, since the government blocks them.
  • MIT researchers say they used spinach to collect solar power, creating a process that might eventually recharge cell phones and laptops. Their experiments harnessed photosynthesis, the plant's ability to collect energy from sunlight, by manipulating proteins deep within cells. The scientists say that practical application is at least a decade away.
  • Verizon is bringing high-speed mobile data service to several major cities and large airports-including Austin, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York-offering laptop users unlimited access for $80 per month. The plan, which Verizon will market to consumers starting next year, promises downloads of 300 to 500 kilobits per second. Subscribers need a special wireless card in their laptop computers to login.

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