Despite all the chatter about how the World Wide Web is an ideally democratic community dedicated to a free and open exchange of ideas and information, it often seems that the primary function of the Web is to sell us things.
And security, like Ford trucks, flags, or funeral services, is just another commodity. You may not be able to drive it or wave it or bury it, but you sure can buy it. All the Web has to do is convince you that you need it, and then take your credit card number.
In order to sell security, as pundits have noted, the purveyor must feedor createinsecurity. Predictably, the one thing that Internet users feel most insecure about is the Internet itself. The vast majority of sites called up in a search for the word security relate to computer networks. Here, fears are preyed upon to such an extent that it's not at all surprising to find a heading like "The Only Safe Computer is a Dead Computer". The point being not that you should kill your computer, of course, but that no matter how much money you've put into protecting yourself from hackers, viruses, and government spies, you could always spend more.
After computers, the thing Net users most desire to protect is children. What do they want to protect children from? Computers, usually. Strange, since more computers have almost certainly been damaged by children than the other way around.
Besides computers, children need to be protected from, well, everything else. For while "Children's life is play in itself. And the toys and dolls make their play richer and merrilier," as the creator of the Toy Safety Measures page puts it (as only a native Japanese speaker of English can), "Above all, safety is the most important aspect."
So what should parents buy for their offspring, if not insidious computers and killer toys? Child Safe Education tapes, obviously. With these, nervous parents can teach their kids to protect themselves in almost any situation. Topics include "My Body's My Own," "Do You Want a Ride?" "Your Mother Sent Me," "Drugs: Are They the Answer?" (hint: no), and the all-purpose "Don't Hurt Me." With more than 20 tapes in all, I reflexively began to look for "The Only Safe Child Is a Dead Child." Instead I found "the importance of using a family code or password to prevent abduction." Passwords should be a combination of upper and lowercase letters and numbers.
On the other hand, First Alert Professional Security Systems doesn't futz around with stuff like passwords. They urge parents to order their "Fun Way To Family Safety" booklet, "complete with a fingerprinting kit, to help you keep an up-to-date file on your child." What could be more fun than that?
After all this, one might think that adulthood would inevitably bring a certain level of security. One would be wrong. Even adults are in danger unless they buy "Don't Be a Target", an interactive program that asks viewers important questions about their routine lifestyle and shows how some common practices can put one in a vulnerable and often dangerous position." Topics covered include "car-jackings, ATM hold-ups" and, inevitably, "child abdud oons [sic]." Recently, the site itself went missing. Extensive web searches and even a phone call to the commpany turned up no clues as to its whereabouts. Perhaps its creators were abdudooned.
Is it possible that marketers are overestimating the public's capacity for paranoia? Not a chance. On the Master Lock page, the company's official security tips ("Know where your kids are, what they are doing, and whom they are with at ALL times.") are downright mellow compared to those suggested by customers. Elliot Galdy of Chapel Hill, a victim of one too many urban legends, advises that when entering your car, "always check the back seat for intruders." Jamal Heacock of Philadelphia writes, "if someone gets in front of your car and tries to make you stop, warn him to move. If he doesn't, run them over! (It is Better to be Judged by Twelve than Carried by Six)."
Whether you own an apartment or a nuclear power plant, there's a web site pandering to your insecurities. Good advice abounds. Worried about hurricanes? "The glass in any building is the weakest point of the structure. It is of the utmost importance to secure these areas effectively." Alcohol poisoning? "Watch children closely at adult parties and clear the 'empty' glasses and cans immediately."
For the ultimate in home security, you'll want the Anti-Terrorist Vault. "This hidden safe provides a 'safe place' in the home in the event of an emergency. The 'Anti-Terrorist Vault' is primarily used for the storage and protection of valuables, but this safe can be used to hide yourself or your family if the need ever arises. How can you put a price on the protection of yourself or your loved ones?" And yet they find a way. One of these babies, complete with lights, oxygen, and cel-phone ("In case the bad guys cut the phone lines") goes for $10,000.
Just when you're finally feeling secure, it turns out that there's something else to fear: security itself. "Naturally we believe all homes need security grilles to keep unwanted intruders out," declares the Exigril home page, but "In a fire or other life-threatening situation security grilles can be a death trap." Exigril markets its easy-opening grilles with the creepy slogan, "Security with Safety."
And when Security magazine commissioned a study on school security, it found that a bigger problem than kids with box cutters was "the climate of intimidation" created by "frightening examples of security measures," such as the "10-ft.-high, 1-ft.-thick and 600-ft.-long wall to deflect bullets" at one California school. "Hardware is important, but we should focus on the "software"the people relationship part," the study concluded.
But since that kind of software is hard to turn into a commodity, the study did recommend one product to buy in the meantime: closed-circuit television cameras "designed by the casino security people." Which should only remind you that no matter how careful you are and how much money you spend, true security is always gamble.