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Leader: Dell's big dumb question

Will you be using this PC to design weapons of mass destruction?
Written by silicon.com staff, Contributor

Will you be using this PC to design weapons of mass destruction?

Dell has taken a leaf out of the US government's book of stupid questions, asking shoppers in its online store whether they intend to use their newly acquired PC to create weapons of mass destruction. The trick here - if that is their intention - is to select 'no'.

If they answer 'yes', then Dell will refuse to ship them the hardware.

Smart move, Dell. That should catch out the terrorists. You can picture it now:

Terrorist One: "Oh no, we've been thwarted. Those cunning swines at Dell have stopped us in our tracks with their tricky questioning."
Terrorist Two: "Have you tried lying?"
Terrorist One: "Oh yeah... that seems to work, panic over."

In the same way that the Visa waiver filled out on entering the US poses visitors taxing questions about whether they are entering the US to commit an act of terrorism or genocide, this line of enquiry is easily circumvented with a simple lie. And let's face it, if you're bent on committing an act of terrorism, then you're probably not going to lose too much sleep about lying to an immigration officer... or even to Dell for that matter.

A Dell spokeswoman said the questions were a routine part of the sale process and were required by any US corporation to comply with export regulations. However, other computer makers generally make do by referring buyers to a "terms of sale" page, with terms such as "you agree to comply with all Export Laws".

Dell, however, goes so far as to ask customers to promise their PC isn't going to be used "in connection with weapons of mass destruction" (the peripherals market really has moved on, hasn't it). And, as if that isn't clear, the site goes on to explain that this would include "nuclear applications, missile technology, or chemical or biological weapons purposes".

The Dell UK site is worded slightly differently, accepting that there may be exceptions to this rule. Dell UK won't sell to "a user involved in weapons of mass destruction or genocide..."

Hang on, there's more:
"...without the prior consent of the US or competent EU government."

So, assuming anybody could find a "competent EU government" (hint, don't start your search in the UK) to grant them permission, then Dell will gladly supply computer equipment for the production of weapons of mass destruction.

(Presumably this is the same kind of permission gained by the Taliban - remember them? - to buy military hardware from Western governments, which we mention by way of a caution to Dell. You never know when these things will come back to haunt you. Just ask IBM.)

But of course that point lends too much credence to the notion that such processes are observed - that terrorists really would play by these rules. They have to get their technology somewhere, after all - and such obstacles are unlikely to deter them. For example, it almost goes without saying that Sony would never willingly condone the use of its equipment for nefarious purposes, but that stance didn't stop Saddam Hussein at the height of his powers allegedly buying 4,000 of the company's PlayStation 2 consoles to create a crude supercomputer capable of fulfilling a number of military uses.

Dell's intentions are laudable, but its strategy is laughable.

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