Top 10 IT villains

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Top 10 IT villains
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5. ECHELON

Iain Thomson: ECHELON is the signals intercept and examination system run by what Churchill called 'the English speaking peoples' - Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

To the tinfoil hat brigade ECHELON is the thing of nightmares. A network of base stations around the world, satellites in space and hookups to internet providers that has the potential to monitor every phone call, fax, email and internet search on the planet.

But that last sentence should raise red flags in the minds of people who think. The sheer amount of data that would be collected would render any meaningful analysis impossible. Now there are software tools that would facilitate the collection of intelligence but even they are limited. This is why the great Firewall of China will fail - the amount of people needed to maintain such a system will grow so large that the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits to those that maintain it.

But that aside ECHELON does maintain the facility for targeted spying. This can be both a good and bad thing. US politician Henry Stimson shut down the US intelligence gathering network in the 1920s because "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail", something he later recanted. Signals intelligence can win more wars than a division of hardened troops and that was never more true than today.

The downside is that such great power can be corrupting. The EU has already raised serious concerns over ECHELON's use in commercial espionage and reporters have found numerous cases of the system being abused both by individuals to spy on targets and by governments seeking the edge in negotiations.

If systems like ECHELON are going to be in place they need to be globally run on a level playing field with full oversight. Until that comes, everyone's going to be looking over their online shoulders.

Shaun Nichols: Nothing says "Big Brother" like a giant unknown computer system capable of monitoring every piece of data transmitted on the planet. While ECHELON will likely never be recording and archiving your phone conversation with mum, the idea that it could sends shivers down the spine of most people.

People these days almost uniformly hold a negative view of politicians, and an even more negative view of their ethics. When those politicians are also in possession of an extremely powerful surveillance system, you have the makings of a truly controversial set-up. ECHELON has more than proved that true.

4. Gary Thuerk

Shaun Nichols: In 1978, DEC marketer Gary Thuerk sent a message to hundreds of ARPAnet users to advertise an event the company was holding in Los Angeles.

Had those recipients known that they had just become a part of history, the likely would have been less annoyed. Thuerk had just sent the world's first spam message, and the reaction was much like that which people have today when they open their inboxes to a flood of pharmaceutical offers and Nigerian bank scams.

Had Thuerk not sent his infamous invitation, it's almost certain that someone else would have figured out the efficiency of sending hundreds of people unsolicited messages. Still, his ill-advised attempt at promotion has made him one of the most infamous villains in web history.

Iain Thomson: Thuerk may have been the first spammer but Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel made it commercial and their names deserve to be mentioned in the halls of infamy.

Spam is junk mail gone electronic. It's an annoyance at best but a positive security risk at worst. Spam is now the chief vector for computer malware and no reputable company would use it to advertise their products.

Sadly a lot of disreputable companies still use it, usually selling quack cures or dating fraud sites. But we have to ask ourselves to take some personal responsibility here. Spam exists because it works. If no-one answered spam emails then they would die off. It's stupid and credulous consumers that allow spam to survive.

3. SCO

Iain Thomson: Where to start with SCO? The company launched an attack on open source that made it one of the most hated names in the industry.

SCO claimed, in simplified terms, that it owned the rights to certain sections of UNIX that Linux had cribbed. Chief executive Darl McBride did the media circuit basically doing a mafia shakedown of anyone daring to use open source. We'll sue unless you buy a license from us was the message.

Amazingly enough a handful of companies actually did do this - something for which they are scorned for today. Having a SCO license is the equivalent of a pair of 32 inch purple corduroy bell bottoms in the corporate closet.

SCO learnt the important lesson that you don't muck around with the open source community. Never have such an assembly of geeks been so organised in a single purpose, or at least not since the rumours that nude photos of Janeane Garofalo were available online.

The result that SCO bit the corporate dust and a promising company was destroyed. This is something Microsoft might like to think about as it launches its action against TomTom by claiming Linux infringes its patents.

Shaun Nichols: The rise of Linux was one of the feel-good moments in IT history. An open system which anyone could access and toy with had risen to become one of the most prevalent technologies in the enterprise world. Linux seemed like the future of computing.

Then SCO came in and tried to rain on everyone's parade. The company claimed that it and it alone held the rights to Linux and that all of the hugely successful Linux vendors would have to fork over huge cuts of their profits,

Had it succeeded, SCO would have seen a colossal pay day. Unfortunately for the company, it didn't. An entire industry seemed to cheer as SCO slowly slipped into bankruptcy amidst a sea of countersuits.

2. Bill Gates

Shaun Nichols: The Machiavelli of Microsoft, Gates masterminded a two-decade stretch of controversial business deals which saw his small software company become one of the most profitable outfits in the world and in turn garnered Gates with a reputation as a shrewd businessman who would stop at nothing to come out on top.

From his first dealings to acquire the basis for MS-DOS to his motivations for pushing the Windows Operating System and later the company's contentious anti-trust dealings in the US and Europe, Gates has amassed a list of detractors that stretches into the tens of millions.

But that's not to say he isn't a good guy inside. Our #2 computing villain is also one of the top philanthropists on the planet today. His charitable contributions through the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation are well-documented and are making huge differences in many, many lives.

Iain Thomson: Bill's charitable work is redeeming his reputation in my eyes but his sins are many.

Leaving aside the dog that is Windows Vista Bill's tactics have caused some serious harm to certain areas of the industry. Browser development is a case in point. Once Internet Explorer had achieved a near monopoly it stopped being something Microsoft concentrated on and languished for years. This allowed malware writers to target it with great effect.

It could be said that the Windows monoculture that Gates set up allowed wide scale computing to take off. This is correct but, as we are increasingly discovering in agriculture, monocultures aren't particularly healthy in the long run. Once a vulnerability is found then it can be exploited on a large scale - something that causes Windows users headaches and Apple users extreme smugness.

In the long term Bill Gates' effect on the planet is likely to be beneficial, but in the short term it has caused much harm, not least for Steve Ballmer's dancing skills.

1. RIAA/MPAA

Iain Thomson: China's chairman Mao had a huge number of faults but his reported quote that "when the winds of change blow, some people build walls, others build windmills," is inspired.

Media organisations like the MPAA and RIAA aren't so much building walls as massive windbreaks, while sending out agents to destroy every windmill they can find in an effort to save their business model. They will fail, because those that stand in the way of technology are doomed .

Let me say right off the bat that theft is wrong. You can't walk into a store and start helping yourself to CDs and DVDs without paying by saying that you have a fast internet connection and so you're entitled to get stuff for free.

But neither is it ethical to spend millions snooping on private individuals and bringing shake-down lawsuits against them for something they may not have done. The courts are now processing claims against individuals accused of downloading music illegally on the flimsiest of grounds. The media organisations take the view that if your IP address is spotted downloading materials that are under copyright then you are guilty, and are using lobbying muscle to get such practices bound into law.

But with a range of IP masking tools like Tor around such claims are bogus. What the media industries are trying to do is preserve their business models in the face of the internet. Other industries have bent and changed in the face of technology and prospered. The media industry seems unwilling to accept this.

Shaun Nichols: Nothing says "villain" like suing old ladies and children. The RIAA's campaign of suing those who did nothing more than download a single song on a P2P network was reckless at best and epically malicious and arrogant at worst.

One can see how a sense of desperation could arise in the industry. Record labels had been more or less absent for the rise of the web and when online services began to offer music, sales of CD's plummeted. There is, however, no excuse for the way the labels reacted.

The RIAA did and still does have a right to prevent unauthorised distribution of their product, but the group quickly squandered any sympathy they may have had with their draconian legal campaign. As it is, the RIAA is now giving the tobacco and oil companies a run for their money as the most-hated industry organisation around.

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