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Week in review: Hacker law

Hackings, viruses and unwanted intrusions into your PC are illegal, right? Well, yes--and no.

Hackings, viruses and unwanted intrusions into your PC are illegal, right? Well, yes--and no.

A last-minute addition to a proposal for a Department of Homeland Security would punish malicious hackers with life in prison. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the bill, which would reshape large portions of the federal bureaucracy into a new department. Inserted into the Homeland Security bill, the 16-page Cyber Security Enhancement Act (CSEA) expands the ability of police to conduct Internet or telephone eavesdropping without first obtaining a court order, and offers Internet providers more latitude to disclose information to police.

Citing privacy concerns, civil liberties groups objected to portions of CSEA. "There are a lot of different things to be concerned about, but preserving Fourth Amendment and wiretap standards continues to be a critical test of Congress' commitment of civil liberties," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Speaking of the Fourth Amendment, a federal judge has ruled that law enforcement officials went too far when they tried to use evidence gathered by a known hacker to convict someone of possessing child pornography. The decision is believed to be the first to say that hacking into an Internet-connected home PC without a warrant violates the amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

The decision came out of a case in which a hacker uploaded a file to a child porn newsgroup that made it possible to track who downloaded files from the service. The uploaded file contained the SubSeven virus, which the hacker used to remotely search people's computers for porn.

On the other side of the spectrum is an electronic greeting card that has all the hallmarks of a mass-mailing computer virus. The FriendGreetings e-mail misleads a victim into downloading an application--ostensibly to view a Web card--and then sends itself to every e-mail address in the victim's Outlook contacts file. A few systems administrators already blame the mass-mailing e-card for swamping their network.

Yet it will be hard to prosecute the company that created the card: The viral card is protected by a license agreement that tricks unsuspecting users into clicking "Yes" and consenting to have the program send itself to all their e-mail contacts. Without the license agreement, the program would be considered a virus, but with the code wrapped in what could be a prosecution-proof vest.

Capellas leaves HP
After helping along the $20 billion merger between Compaq Computer, where he was chief executive, with Hewlett-Packard, HP President Michael Capellas jumped ship to the capsized WorldCom to take over as CEO. Capellas said he is leaving in part because the merger integration is ahead of schedule, and he tried to reassure his colleagues of that in an e-mail sent to all HP employees.

HP Chief Executive Carly Fiorina said that Capellas had "reached a natural transition point" with the company, which he joined when HP swallowed Compaq earlier this year. Fiorina said that her company won't hire another president.

With the departure, HP joins a growing roster of high-profile Silicon Valley companies without a clear No. 2 executive. Beyond the question of succession, some analysts wondered Monday whether Fiorina might be taking on too much responsibility by not replacing Capellas. But Fiorina said she can handle the dual roles as chief strategist and day-to-day operations chief.

"The position of president will not be replicated, period," Fiorina said during an interview alongside Capellas. As for who her likely successor would be, Fiorina said it's "way too early" to start thinking about such plans. "I've only been here three years and I'm not yet 50." But, she added, "We have a very deep bench here."

Oracle flexes muscle
As Oracle kicked off its annual OracleWorld conference this week in San Francisco, there were still plenty of IT managers fuming over an impending ultimatum over a key software upgrade. This summer, Oracle plans to discontinue support for version 10.7 of its business applications, giving customers the choice of paying for a costly upgrade to version 11i--or losing technical support for the older software.

After the "de-support" date, clients using version 10.7 will not be able to call Oracle for help when they encounter problems with their systems. Nor will they have access to electronic documentation and software patches. "We're doing the upgrade, but we're not happy about it," said one IT executive. "It's expensive, and we expect very little return on investment."

Oracle launched another assault as it urged thousands of IT managers to ditch Microsoft and IBM e-mail systems in favor of Oracle's Collaboration Suite. A new version of the collaboration program--a set of e-mail, calendar, Web conferencing and voice-mail tools--is set for arrival in June. Oracle plans to add instant messaging, online whiteboard and other online teamwork applications to the new release.

In launching this product, Oracle is gearing up to give Microsoft a run for its money. Introducing special prices here, Oracle sought to persuade customers of Microsoft Exchange Server version 5.5 to switch to Oracle Collaboration Suite rather than upgrade to Exchange Server 2000, the latest version of Microsoft's e-mail server.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison used his keynote speech at the convention to chide the information technology industry for making life difficult for corporate IT managers. An industrywide lack of software interoperability, reliability and quality, as well as overly complex products have resulted in "a scarcity of information at the dawn of the information age," Ellison said in an address beamed via satellite from Auckland, New Zealand, where he's competing in the America's Cup sailing race.

Ellison said information fragmentation, brought about by businesses installing ever-greater numbers of incompatible computer systems, is among the biggest problems facing companies today. He urged companies, as Oracle itself has done, to consolidate their IT operations onto fewer databases and to quit customizing packaged business application software.

Gadget goings-on
The price may be right for Gateway's $3,000 plasma television, but the company is having trouble filling orders, prompting some grumbles from early customers. The company said that it is seeing "minor delays" in shipping the 42-inch screen Plasma TV that was introduced earlier this month as part of a broader push into digital electronics.

Analysts noted at the time that the $3,000 price was seen as groundbreaking for the plasma screens, which often fetch thousands more. But shipping delays caused by the recent port strike have been compounded by higher-than-expected demand, Gateway said.

Sony will attempt to break some ground of its own when this spring with RoomLink, which allows networking of PCs, TVs and stereo receivers with relative ease. RoomLink, which is already available in Japan and which will hit U.S. shelves next spring, is essentially a networking hub for swapping data between disparate devices.

With it, music or digital photos stored on a PC hard drive can be played on a stereo or TV. Likewise, the hard drive can function as a personal video recorder. Connections can be made with cables or wirelessly through Wi-Fi. It will sell for around $199, Sony said. Eventually, these networks will likely expand beyond the home so customers can download music from home to a cell phone or MP3 player.

HP plans to introduce on Monday two iPaqs: One is the smallest, most affordable iPaq yet, and the other, a deluxe model with fingerprint recognition and two forms of wireless connectivity. The iPaqs offer a new high end and a new low end to HP's lineup. The low-end model is far slimmer and lighter than previous iPaqs.

The iPaq Pocket PC h1910 will sell for $299, in line with a new handheld from ViewSonic. However, it is still considerably more expensive than a low-end Dell Computer device that will debut next week for $199 after rebate. A slightly more powerful Dell model will sell for $299.

Also of note
Microsoft unveiled a new instant messaging service aimed at corporate customers, jump-starting belated efforts by the software giant to tap the fast-growing new market for the hugely popular technology...The software giant also confirmed that is has scratched plans for a major overhaul to an upcoming version of its Windows operating system for servers...Actor Kevin Spacey unveiled an online initiative to help aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters get their foot in the door?Internet wine sellers won a courtroom victory when a federal judge struck down a New York state law banning wine shipments from out-of-state wineries to New York state residents?Microsoft raised its stakes in the gaming market with an elaborate new online service for its Xbox video game console?Intel hopes that its recently released 3GHz Pentium 4 will give computer buyers something they haven't had in a while: a reason to buy a new computer.