The Internet has been a tremendous boon to our Information Age society – it has made available a wealth of information that I never even dreamed of twenty years ago. I graduated as an undergraduate in 1994. I first went online in 1996, and let me tell you: it wasn’t all that great, but you could see the glimmerings of its potential. In college, to do research for a class paper, I had to walk to the library, use a computer terminal to search the catalogue (yes, they did still have the physical card catalogues but I preferred the computer terminals) and spend an afternoon laboriously searching for likely books. Journal, magazine, and newspaper articles were not integrated into a searchable database, and you had to visit the stacks and dig through piles of paper to see if anything looked relevant. You never knew what sources you had missed. Now, as an academic, I can search through countless databases to find virtually every article, monograph, and edited collection on a given topic, instantly and from the comfort of my home or office. I can also get copies of all these pieces as long as they’re in a database to which my academic institution has access. That’s a revolutionary transformation in information availability and retrieval. And it says nothing about the revolution in online retail and entertainment options now available. I essentially never need to visit a mall or entertainment venue again, unless I want to.
But I can also get my identity stolen online, and get my bank account cleaned out by an anonymous crook. I can be tricked into believing things that aren’t true online, and I can be subtly influenced by what I read or watch online (just as with any other information source). Personally, I find that the advantages of the Internet outweigh the disadvantages, and I’m cautious about how I use the Internet.
Not everyone is cautious with their use of the Internet, or how they perceive and treat the information we are all bombarded with on a daily basis, and that’s where WEB OF DECEIT comes in. This is a collection of relatively short essays on a host of web security, online fraud, and identity protection-related issues, along with a few pieces that begin to delve into the more subtle biases we might encounter in published statements by journalists and politicians. (On this point, I must ironically note that I found several of the websites and other sources suggested for political “fact-checking” to be extremely biased. No matter what one’s political leanings, I doubt that anyone would consider the MSNBC pundit Rachel Maddow, among others, to be an objective “fact-checker” to whom one should turn for unbiased political analysis.)
Ultimately, I found WEB OF DECEIT to be a quick, fairly interesting read, but I’m not sure of its intended audience. It raises a number of issues related to Internet security, identity theft, and credibility of the information one finds online, but is any of this really new information, or for that matter, anything a thoughtful reader doesn’t already know? As a college professor, I am aware that many of my students who have come of age in a time of ubiquitous Internet access don’t treat the Internet with sufficient caution. They tend to treat all Internet sources as being equally credible, rarely interrogating their sources in a deep or meaningful way. So maybe WEB OF DECEIT could serve as an eye opener for them. It’s a quick read, and most of the essays contain at least a few interesting nuggets. I recommend it to those with a significant interest in issues of Internet privacy, but for everyone else it’s a bit ho-hum. It’s not a bad source of information – calls for heightened caution online should never fall on deaf ears – but it’s also unlikely to tell you anything you don’t already know.
Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers