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Once you’ve arrived at the precise middle of nowhere, you’ll come to a lone stoplight. If you sneeze, blink or swerve to avoid a horse trailer parked in your lane, you might fail to notice you’ve suddenly arrived in the precise middle of somewhere.

The somewhere is Hardyville, home to two farm implement dealers, three bars, five churches and one somewhat unattractive tourist attraction.

If you’re a tourist passing through you might look down your nose at Hardyville or — even worse — consider it quaint in a sagebrushy way. On first glance, there’s something of the Dust Bowl about it, and something even more of the Wild West.

But the ultimate decade of the twentieth century is here, as surely as it is in your city. And with the fin de siecle have come the joys and travails of technology. You’ll see that for yourself if you turn left, head two blocks, and stop at Bob-the-Nerd’s No-Name Computer Store.

Bob never seems to sell many computers behind his dingy little storefront. (Desktop models are hard to operate in a pickup truck, and notebook batteries tend to run out on four-day cattle drives.) But he fixes a lot of them.

This morning I found him cursing as he wiped a customer’s hard drive.

“Damn Trojans!” he muttered, as I walked in to buy a new modem cable. I figured he wasn’t likely to be talking about ancient civilizations or prophylactic failures, but I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Trojan horse … Back Orifice.” (For a moment, I wondered if he was talking about that kind of Trojans, after all. But no. … ) “This woman’s son executed a file somebody sent over e-mail, and the next thing you know, data is disappearing, sounds are playing on their own, files are renamed and the computer’s shutting down at random. When she calls me, she says the machine’s haunted — and it might as well be. Then before she has a chance to bring it in, Windows crashes altogether. Pow.”

“Slow down, Bob. What are you talking about? What happened?”

“Back Orifice. It’s this new ‘Windows Remote Administration Tool,’ so called, designed by some bright kid named Sir Dystic from a hacker group called http://www.cultdeadcow.com“>The Cult of the Dead Cow. It’s a freeware program that lets somebody take remote control over your computer through your network connection, without you even knowing the program’s there.”

“Anybody’s computer?”

“Anybody who’s running Windows 95 or 98 and has an insecure connection to the Internet — like most people. Anybody who gets tricked into executing the program — which you won’t even know about, because it’s real small and it can come in attached to another program — Trojan horse, get it? These Dead Cow guys invented Back Orifice to show how bad Windows’ security is. They showed that, all right, but it isn’t Bill Gates who’s hurtin’.”

“It completely killed the computer? How?”

“Who knows? In this case, the remote joker probably edited the Windows Registry over the Internet. Mess with that in just the right way and flooey. It’s easy as pie to screw with, too.”

“Well, what can somebody do?”

“Use some sense, is what. Get http://www.digifriends.com/dffocus/trojan_horses.shtml“> a really reputable, really up-to-date anti-virus program to find and fix it. And be very, very careful.

“Uh … yeah … I guess I will be.”

“It won’t do you any good, though.”

“Huh?”

“Back Orifice is a birthday present compared to a real, live commercial product that came out this summer.”

” … ?”

Bob swiveled from the dead computer to one of his live ones, typed a URL into his browser and waved a Voila! at the screen.

There, on a cheery-looking site, with animated graphics and the friendliest of typefaces appeared the words, “Looking to get the dirt on computer crime? Data Interception by Remote Transmission. … Imagine being able to access any personal computer in the world anytime you want. … Imagine being able to read every keystroke or access any file on the hard drive without having physical access. … No more secrets. …”

It went on: “Available ONLY to authorized government or law enforcement agencies … remote monitoring of a target PC by military, government or law enforcement … stealth transmission of captured data … physical access to the target computer is NOT necessary … surreptitious keystroke logging capabilities. …”

“The keystroke logging thing means they can get your PGP password,” Bob pointed out. “AND they can read every file on your computer — maybe even put something incriminating in your files and make it look like you did it. And guess what? This one can be installed without you knowing or doing a thing. AND it can record what you do even when you’re off the ‘Net. AND lucky us, there’s no fix for it, like there is for Back Orifice.”

“This can’t be for real.”

“Oh yeah?” He scrolled down. “Here’s the address of the people selling it.”

The company was called Codex Data Systems from New York state.

“Don’t bother asking about this DIRT software, though,” he pointed out, “because they won’t even answer questions unless they come on ‘official letterhead signed by an authorized official.’” Then he had a second thought. “But wouldn’t it be the pits if some crook or industrial spy or stalker faked an ‘official letterhead’ and an ‘official purchase order’ and bought this program? Just think of the damage they could do. Man, they could steal business secrets, rob banks, read your love letters … serious hurt if it fell into the wrong hands. … And not a thing you can do about it.”

As I stood there staring at the bright, friendly, flashing little Web site I said, “Wrong hands? Bob, think of what it’s going to do when it falls into the hands these Codex people think are the right ones. Lord help us all.”

“Lord help you anti-government extremists, anyway,” Bob shrugged. “So don’t type anything I wouldn’t type, y’hear? Unless you type it on a computer that never, never, never connects to the Internet. Because your Big Brother is going to be watching.”

But, I thought, some freedom loving hacker will defeat this one. Surely. C’mon, you Dead Cow guys, if you really like busting big, arrogant institutions, here’s a challenge to thwart the biggest and most arrogant of all. Do it.

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