HolidayBuyer's Guide

Week in review: Keeping watch over Web surfing

U.S. attorney general invokes fight against terrorism in bid for more data on who's using the Internet.

A Bush administration plan to keep tabs on Web users' surfing habits took a radical turn, worrying tech companies and Web surfers alike.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said that requiring Internet service providers to save records of their customers' online activities is necessary in the fight against terrorism. Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller privately met with representatives of AOL, Comcast, Google, Microsoft and Verizon last week and said that Internet providers--and perhaps search engines--must retain data for two years to aid in antiterrorism prosecutions

"We want this for terrorism," Gonzales said, according to one person familiar with the discussion.

If the European Union's approach were adopted, Internet companies would be required to save logs showing the identities of e-mail and, perhaps, instant messaging correspondents in addition to data about which customer was assigned which Internet address.

If data retention becomes viewed primarily as an antiterrorism measure, recent legal and political spats could complicate the Justice Department's efforts to make it standard practice. Gonzales' earlier position had emphasized only how mandatory data retention would help thwart child exploitation.

ISPs and telecommunications companies expressed concern about the feasibility of recording Americans' online activities.

"We have real reservations about data retention requirements because of the security and privacy risks attached to it," said Mark Uncapher, senior vice president of the Information Technology Association of America. ITAA's board members include representatives of AT&T, Sybase, Fujitsu and Unisys.

CNET News.com readers predicted a loss of privacy and personal freedom, and also questioned the administration's motives.

"The Justice Dept couldn't get this proposal approved, so they switched to their all-purpose backup, terrorism," wrote on the TalkBack forum.

More views of Vista
Microsoft's new operating system, which won't arrive for consumers until early next year, has a new collaboration feature that allows laptops to share information with other, nearby machines. The underlying technology is known as "People Near Me" and is being used by Microsoft for its own software projects and by other developers. The company has built one program based on it into Vista--Windows MeetingSpace--that lets people share and view files.

MeetingSpace is designed with a couple of situations in mind. First is the scenario where people meet up at a coffeehouse and want to share data with one another. The other might be at a business, where several people are in a meeting and want to be able to view and edit a presentation together.

With the new version of Windows, Microsoft has created an operating system that offers advances in many areas, but laptop battery life is not one of them. Going by internal tests at one hardware maker, which declined to be named, there is noticeably lower battery life when Vista runs in its "average power" mode.

Microsoft has said that the current versions of the update deliver less battery life than Windows XP, but the company has also said it hopes to close the gap in the coming months. Even so, any lowering in battery life is a blow to the rest of the PC industry. Manufacturers have found it a struggle to boost the battery life of notebook computers, even as they've made easy advances in other areas, such as disk space and processor performance.

There is no doubt that people will find glitches in Beta 2 of the oft-delayed operating system. The question is whether there are any showstoppers. Microsoft has time to squish some bugs, but it needs to avoid any significant headaches if it is to make its revised goal of finishing the code by November and launching the product in January.

Already, there have been discussions of installation issues and assorted issues related to battery life, performance and application compatibility. The company already knows of some problems and expects others. Only about 40 percent of Windows XP applications can run without any modification, for example. Also, there are still a number of hardware products that don't have drivers.

Security dogfight
The fight to provide you with desktop security is heating up.

Microsoft has started selling Windows Live OneCare, three years after it announced its intent to move into the antivirus arena. OneCare combines antivirus, anti-spyware and firewall software with backup features and several tune-up tools for Windows PCs. The product went on sale in the U.S. online and in stores Wednesday. Microsoft said it plans to expand to international markets in the coming 12 months.

OneCare will cost $49.95 a year for use on up to three PCs in a home, a competitive price compared with rival products from traditional security vendors including Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro. Many retailers plan to offer rebates and other types of promotions that will discount OneCare.

Symantec's next-generation security software has been officially named Norton 360 but faces a delay from the original September due date.

Symantec announced that the product is slated to ship by the end of March next year. When 360 ships, the plan is for the product to be available worldwide with support for both Windows XP and the upcoming Vista operating system.

Meanwhile, McAfee is readying new security software, code-named Falcon, to rival upcoming products from Symantec and newcomer Microsoft. The product will integrate features found in McAfee's current range of security products with a revamped user interface to manage the application.

Falcon will protect PCs against spam, viruses, spyware and other threats such as phishing scams and rootkits, McAfee said. It will also offer tools to prevent data loss, help optimize PC performance and secure a wireless network, the company said. The product is scheduled to debut this summer in a variety of packages.

Go-go gadget
It's harvest season in the consumer electronics arena, and here's a sampling of some of the products we can look forward to.

Dell unveiled a so-called luggable computer that's either a blast from the past or a leap into the future. The 20-pound XPS M2010, which starts at $3,500, incorporates a large-screen monitor with a small, flat PC. The computer, part of Dell's XPS luxury line, includes two hard drives with capacities of up to 120GB each, a Core Duo processor and 4GB of dual-channel (667MHz) memory.

Attached to the flat horizontal PC, which remains on the desk, is a 20.1-inch wide-screen monitor. It folds down to meet the computer and keyboard as on a laptop. The monitor's support bar, when open, becomes a briefcase handle when the device is closed.

Microsoft formally unveiled a wireless keyboard and mouse for the Mac, expanding its lineup of Apple Computer-compatible products. The wireless keyboard incorporates Microsoft's Comfort Curve design with a Mac-oriented key layout and a wireless mouse that uses Microsoft's tilt-wheel navigation technology.

Meanwhile, Advanced Micro Devices unveiled its AMD Live PC and AMD Live Entertainment Suite, as the chipmaker goes head-to-head with archrival Intel in the digital entertainment arena.

AMD, with the aid of other companies, is aiming to create a media-center PC that will let people organize, distribute and share their content. The chipmaker is also launching AMD Live Entertainment Suite, a suite of applications and services meant to assist people in designing and operating digital entertainment systems.

Also of note
Sun Microsystems said it will cut between 4,000 to 5,000 employees over the next six months, which represents an 11 percent to 13 percent cut in its global work force...The Bush administration ramped up its support for erecting a "virtual" border fence to keep tabs on illicit entries into the country.

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