The Tech Scares That Weren't: Urban Myths of Technology

Technology is scary! Turn off the lights, wrap yourself up in a blanket, and prepare to be terrified! Or mildly concerned. You know, whatever.

The System, By Rosscott

They come upon you unawares, like a shadowy whisper in the night. Tree branches scraping and tapping your windows in the breeze. The quiet is suddenly shattered with the piercing shriek of...

Your email client notifying you that you have new messages.

The emails from your aunt warning you not to open any email with a certain topic. The commercials telling you that your computer is infected and horrifying consequences will occur if you don't use their product right now. News items telling you that your privacy is gone because the men in black are tracking you through transmitters in your money. Viruses don't just infect computers, they're after your TV, your MP3 player, your toaster oven and your dog's chew toy. Terrorists have already taken over the country through horrible reality TV Shows like Jersey Shore.

OK, that last one may actually be true.

As for the rest? Give us a break. A good many scares spread around the Internet are due to a shortage of facts, fear, and the easily duped. "Hey, I read it on the Internet" is usually a good reason to double-check the facts to make sure it isn't some scam or hoax.

I will not be including any references to Y2K. The reason for this is because it was a legitimate issue, and the only reason it didn't turn into a worldwide disaster was because there was an international effort to pro-actively correct the aging systems that would be affected years before the actual event.

And with that, let's go on a spoooky journey through Tech Scares That Weren't!

Page 2: [RFID: Big Brother Is Watching You] »

RFID: Big Brother Is Watching You

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is a technology that allows information transfer through electromagnetic waves. The most common type is the passive RFID tag where a small amount of data is stored in the RFID chip; it requires no power to maintain, and can be read with a simple reader in close proximity to the chip. It's used in passports, photo IDs, tickets, transportation passes, consumer items to prevent shoplifting, even injected under the skin of pets to identify them if they get lost.

The scary part is that people think anyone with a reader can scan your ID or passport or credit card and use it to steal their identities. There's just two problems with this scenario: One, RFID can be easily shielded, and two, a scanner usually needs to be within a few centimeters of a chip in order to read it.

That doesn't stop privacy advocates from protesting it, of course. Richard Stallman has been known to wrap his ID badges in tin foil in protest. Of course, RFID tags could be disguised as lice and placed in his beard and he would never know.

Scary or not, the real scary part of this is how far corporations will go to hide certain facts about RFID instead of just clearing the air:

Page 3: [This Email Is Infected! Don't Open It!] »

This Email Is Infected! Don't Open It!

If you receive an email with a file attachment that you didn't expect, common sense should tell you to delete the email without opening it. However, you can usually open the email and read it as long as you don't open the file attachment--that's usually a virus dropper or Trojan payload designed to do any number of unsavory things to your computer.

Then again, there are people that continually forward chain letter warnings because they are paranoid and ignorant about how computers work, and believe anything anyone tells them. You've seen these emails before. Before spamming all of your friends with this chain letter, you might want to do some research first.

No matter how many times you tell your family and friends to stop sending you this nonsense, they keep doing it. The scary part of this is not the possibility of a virus, but the gullibility and stupidity of someone that will believe a completely anonymous chain letter warning rather than their own friends and family. Put them in your spam filter, and stop inviting them to Thanksgiving dinner.

Page 4: [Viruses Can Destroy Your Computer Hardware] »

Viruses Can Destroy Your Computer Hardware

Long story short: They can't. The only thing computer viruses can do is affect software. 12 years ago the Chernobyl Virus had the capability to wipe a computer's BIOS and hard drive. However, the BIOS is still software; the chip itself that the software resided in was unharmed and could be reprogrammed. The hard drive could easily be reformatted and restored.

There have been many hoaxes involving computer viruses that supposedly damaged computer hardware. The AIDS computer virus being one of the most famous. This type of hoax goes back decades, pre-dating Windows and Mac systems.

On the other hand, there is a very real danger from exploding computers. Not because of viruses, but because of laptop battery manufacturers cutting corners and lowering quality control. The instances of exploding laptop batteries are more common than you might think.

Here's an example under controlled conditions:

The numerous incidents of Dell laptops exploding due to defective Sony batteries resulted in a massive recall. Two years later, Sony issued another battery recall for similar reasons.

Page 5: [Your Computer Is Infested And ONLY THESE GUYS CAN SAVE YOU!] »

Your Computer Is Infested And ONLY THESE GUYS CAN SAVE YOU!

You've probably seen those TV commercials that claim your computer is infected with viruses and trojans, and have testimonials from people that gush over how much faster their computers are after using this magical computer elixir.

Snake-oil salesmen promised the same thing, and the only thing you ended up with was an oily snake.

I've gone over this previously in my article should be avoided at all costs.

There have been incidents where antivirus companies looking to drum up more business have spread virus scares of their own. This kind of behavior is damaging to their reputation, especially when they were considered to be above using such tactics. If they use deceptive scare tactics like this, how can their product be trusted?

Page 6: [Your Mobile Phone Is Cooking Your Brain!] »

Your Mobile Phone Is Cooking Your Brain!

It's been bandied about for years: excessive cellphone usage is giving you brain cancer from the powerful radiation emanating from the antenna. The only problem is that the antenna in your smartphone generates a very low level of non-ionizing radiation, which is quite different than the ionizing radiation found in radioactive materials and x-rays. It's in the same radio frequency as that of your microwave oven, but at such a low output that it doesn't have the energy or radiation to damage DNA or genetic material.

There have been many tests over the years, much of which provides conflicting evidence. Generally, people living in industrialized nations are twice as likely to contract brain tumors than people in developing countries. Scientific American had a good article on the possibilities of cellphone radiation and long-term use.

Using a wired headset would keep the phone away from the side of your head. You could even use a bluetooth headset, since the radiation level is a tiny fraction of that of a normal cellphone.

This is one tech scare where we don't have enough information to definitively say if it's bunk or not. And that's a perfect way to wrap up this Halloween special--a little scare to keep you awake tonight.

Here's a list of sites that you can use to confirm or deny the truth of these technology scares. Chances are that they're more hype than truth. Educate yourself, and stop the cycle of ignorance!

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