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Who says paranoia doesn't pay off?

Some people in the Chinese government believe the United States can tap secret back doors in Microsoft software to crash their systems. CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says you can add that to the list of reasons why Linux is looking better all the time.

What you are about to read is a true story.

China thinks Microsoft software contains secretly embedded code that the United States government can manipulate at will. So, in case of war between the two countries, a Pentagon official can hit a switch and--presto!--cripple China's computing infrastructure.

A senior Microsoft executive, who often confers with the Chinese (sorry, no names), told me this tale. I thought he was joking.

He wasn't. Some people in the Chinese government actually believe it's true.

I'm sure this type of functionality is cheaper than ordering in a bevy of B2 bombers. While Microsoft may be a predatory monopolist and the U.S. government sometimes does goofy stuff--getting Fidel Castro's beard to fall out with secret powder is my particular favorite--the image of Bill Gates getting his marching orders from President George Bush just doesn't compute.

But there's a business case for paranoia--if you're a distributor of Linux, that is. China is already sweet on Linux. If this debate turns to the issue of national security, you don't need the Amazing Kreskin to guess who's going to come out on top.

Microsoft, which operates an important research lab in China, may not be especially concerned. Chairman Bill Gates still gets all the face time he wants with the Chinese leadership, while his company continues to view the country as a market with huge potential.

Yet as most American technology companies are closely identified with their homeland, conspiracy theorists should have no trouble believing that SQL Server is stuffed with secret back doors.

In other regions around the world, the arguments in favor of using open source are of the more traditional variety. In the United Kingdom, the government recently said it would consider open-source software alternatives to Microsoft because it's concerned about getting locked into using proprietary applications. The German government signed a deal with IBM and Linux vendor SuSE over the summer because it, too, wanted to offer an open-source alternative to Microsoft operating systems.

CIOs are increasingly describing themselves as operating system agnostic--they'll use whatever makes sense for the job.

That's called competing on merit. But what if Microsoft--this also applies to the rest of Silicon Valley--is viewed as doing the bidding of the State Department? In an increasingly turbulent world, conspiracy theories, no matter how paranoid, run rampant. The supreme irony is that American tech executives and government policy makers have squared off over a number of tech policy issues, such as exports of encryption technology and supercomputers.

This much is clear: big corporations and governments overseas are losing their fear of open-source software. Linux doesn't belong to anyone and can't be construed as representing any state or political interest. CIOs are increasingly describing themselves as operating system agnostic--they'll use whatever makes sense for the job.

Toss international politics into that equation and Linux suddenly looks very attractive. Back in China, I don't expect President Jiang Zemin is going to wake up one day and order all government agencies to wipe Windows off their hard drives. But any conspiracy theorist will tell you: Linux is looking better all the time.