Turning a leak into a fire hose is easy these days

The public relations people at two of the IT industry's biggest companies have had bad hair days recently. Both Compaq's and Microsoft's PR people responded quickly to the crisis each faced. In both cases what was clearly demonstrated was the rapidly shrinking nature of the global communications network -- the internet.

For Compaq, the company decided it was going to drop further development of Windows NT on the Alpha hardware platform to concentrate on Tru64 (that is, Unix) and OpenVMS. It sounds as if the company wanted to carefully stage the announcement.

First it would tell the development engineers working on the NT-on-Alpha project. Compaq's local marketing manager admits that the company was naive in expecting this would not be leaked. It was leaked, of course and the leak came from Compaq. The moment it made the announcement to those engineers, it had told the rest of the world. Announcements of this nature bounce around the planet in a matter of, literally, minutes. Compaq probably told its engineers some time on Friday, August 20. The public IDG News Service (www.idg.net) had the first news flash at 2.56pm Pacific time on the same day. That's late Friday evening our time. By Saturday morning in Australia, our internal news service had posted several follow-up stories.

By Sunday morning in Australia, the story had been edited for inclusion in the Monday morning edition of Computerworld Today. When subscribers to that service got their e-mail news at 0813 on Monday morning, the story was already more than 50 hours old. But there was still no official reaction from Compaq. There is unlikely to be, although the company is contacting individual Alpha customers running NT.

There's no such thing as a leak any more. If you let information out today, it's not a leak but a full-on, 38mm fire hose.

Microsoft's problem was that the fire hose was not on the inside aimed outwards but on the outside aimed inwards.

Someone had figured out how to hack into Hotmail, the company's excellent free e-mail service. The administrator of a Web site in Sweden included on his page a URL that linked to a Hotmail log-in page. The log-in page allowed anyone to enter a user's name and a fake password to enter that user's account.

To its credit, Microsoft fixed the hack later the same day but not before a fair number of people around the world just pasted the rogue URL into their browser and enjoyed open access to Hotmail accounts.

Microsoft attributed the hack to, "a malicious hacker with very specific knowledge of advanced Web-development languages". It missed the point. That naughty Swede may have matched that description but as one security specialist put it so succinctly, "Once the cat's out of the bag it doesn't make any difference." All you needed was some basic Web editing skills and you were off and running. Here again, the news of the hack was off like that cat out of the bag.

This instant, global communications phenomenon can be great fun. At times it doesn't seem to matter which end of the fire hose you're on. You could still get really soaked.

John Costello, editor


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