Up close and personal

Computer crashes have often left users seeing red, but now they might make them blush as well.

The good people at the U.S. Computer Incident Advisory Capability office Friday said they had discovered a potential side-effect to the bug-reporting technology in Microsoft Corp.’s Office XP and Internet Explorer 5. Apparently, when debugging information is sent back to the software giant’s troubleshooters, an image of the current contents of the user’s entire PC memory is sent along for the ride. That means any personal documents, as well as business-related material, would be exposed to Microsoft scrutiny.

Microsoft has said users will be asked permission before any information is passed to its staff, and the bug-reporting tool can also be turned off. In any case, this isn’t a threat large enough to engage the various Internet privacy watchdogs. It just gives you that creepy little feeling of vulnerability in an already-invasive corporate culture.

Depending on how frequently XP and IE 5 crash — and unfortunately, most companies who choose to upgrade won’t know the answer to that question until it’s already too late — Microsoft now finds itself in the position of many IT managers. With almost every technological glitch comes at least a small moment of embarrassment. IT managers routinely field calls from users whose screens have frozen in the middle of a personal e-mail message, for example, requiring the sort of diplomacy that few others in an enterprise need to consider. Many will assume a poker-faced expression as though they don’t see that you’ve been shut down when you were using office time to write about problems in your love life, or were forwarding a particularly tasteless fart joke. Others will chuckle along indulgently, aware of the power they hold over our dignity and reputations.

The humiliation need not involve the disclosure of personal information. All it takes is an IT snafu that demonstrates the user’s complete ignorance of the hardware and applications they use every day. My favorite help-desk story concerns the user who called for technical assistance when she couldn’t get her “coaster” (a.k.a. her CD-ROM drive) to go back in the machine.

In this sense, IT managers are like the archetypal hairdressers who hear the problems of their clientele: they know our secrets. But unlike hairdressers, they often learn about them without our consent — or more precisely, they learn them only after we are forced to tell them. This has much to do with why IT managers get a bad rap in many organizations, beyond the frustration that bubbles up when technical failures keep people from doing their jobs. We resent our dependency on IT staff, and we hate that they often see us only in our moments of weakness — downloading a video game, printing off resumes or spilling soft drinks on our keyboards.

That Microsoft could become privy to our personal information might actually improve IT manager-user relations. With IT managers, there is at least an outside chance a secret will be kept. But how long before Microsoft puts this data into a CRM application and develops even more sophisticated smart tags in XP? Bug reports may bounce back with helpful links to Microsoft-approved marriage counselors, for example, or a Web portal specializing in even funnier fart jokes.

For a society so hooked on IT, we haven’t yet found a great way to handle the “personal” in personal computing. Maybe it will take the threat of Microsoft’s prying eyes to keep us on our toes.

sschick@plesman.com

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