The Dell Keylogger Hoax and Collective Intelligence

True story: we are all sitting around the table at a Berkman Center “fellows’ hour” discussion yesterday afternoon, and as usual most people have their laptops open in front of them, “multitasking.” Suddenly, one of the fellows interjects that he has just seen a report of a discovery that hardware keyloggers are built into Dell computers. Instant hubbub, multiple questions drowning one another out, followed by feverish typing from all around the room, followed by several fellows saying, in slightly different words, “Never mind, it’s a hoax.” Sighs of relief, and back to the previous discussion.

It was a perfect in-person demonstration of the dynamics of social networks and recommendation systems on the internet — human intelligence and interaction combined with the enormous information resources available online — all played out within 90 seconds. Apparently Michael Froomkin went through the same process of alarm and reassurance, but it sounds like his interactions were all online (he also has the links to the hoax and its debunking at Engadget and Snopes).

Two observations about this story: (1) there is definitely something to this whole idea of social trust networks and collective intelligence (that is, as Mom always said, many heads are indeed better than one); (2) recent revelations about the NSA have made all of us paranoid, because on sober reflection the story should have been implausible, even for 90 seconds.

4 Responses to “The Dell Keylogger Hoax and Collective Intelligence”

  1. Well, of course, why bother with the hardware when it’s in the software?

    (I think)

  2. Funny I heard this from a friend of mine this morning. First Ive heard of it. And the funny thing about this is i am a Dell hardware support tech. For the service tag, Its the sticker on your computer that tells us who bought it, and the parts inside in case warranty issues replacement parts. And as for the (What are/is your computer going to be used for?) Is if your name or country pops up on the homeland security risk data sheet. And yes its the same list the airports use to deny service. And every one remembers the babies on some counters were not allowed on a plane. So yes as a fact it is a hoax.

  3. A lot of people are under the impression that keyloggers are of use only to criminals. The media hype surrounding hackers, and in particular identity theft, is primarily to blame for this. But as you know, the media always exaggerates for effect, no less so in this case.

    This is just the same as how someone with a car could run you over, when they see you on a street. That would be very bad, particularly for you, but it doesn’t stop you from using a car yourself, does it? In fact, keyloggers have a large number of legitimate uses.

    For example, if you are worried about your children, you can use a keylogger to protect them. The program will watch them automatically, catching everything they do, so you can see if they are doing anything dangerous. There are a lot of very bad people online, and with today’s chat software it is easier then ever for them to attack your children over the internet. With the help of a keylogger, you can see this happening and take steps to stop it.

    More then that, it provides a useful tool to keep tabs on all your family- maybe you’re worried your spouse is cheating on you, well, this is an easy way to find out. Just install a keylogger, and check out who they are chatting to and what they are chatting about. Computer surveillance has never been easier.

    If there are no family issues to concern you, spy software is still an excellent device at work, too. You can keep an eye on what your employees are up to, and catch them immediately if they are wasting time on personal emails, or just web surfing, when they should be working. Much more importantly, though, you can spot leaks before they become a problem and prevent trade secrets from escaping.

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    In the end, if you are worried at all (or perhaps just curious) you should definitely get a keylogger. Even the most basic will be a big help to you, and the more advanced, modern programs have a host of additional features. The best thing to do is to think up a list of everything you want it to do, and then shop around until you find something that meets your specifications. Be sure to ask for advice in forums, and check out review sites. Where your peace of mind is at stake, don’t settle for anything less then the best.

  4. I left D. Smith’s apologia for keyloggers in the comments section, but deleted the portiond that were simply an ad for a product. Please note that both the ethics and, in some circumstances, the legality of keyloggers are highly questionable.

    Anyway, the original post makes quite a different point. I will leave it at that.