AT LARGE: A matter of trust

AT LARGE: A matter of trust

A couple of weeks ago, the Web site for the popular American "intimate apparel" retailer Victoria's Secret developed an odd bug. On the order confirmation page, where the customer order number appeared, this was an editable field. Customers could type a random number into the field, hit return, and, if the random number happened to match an existing order, another customer's details would appear -- complete with name, address and what type of slinky undies they'd bought.

It was not possible to search for another customer by name or address or bra size, just type in random numbers and voyeuristically peer into the private lives of strangers. Nonetheless, the incident highlighted a truism of Web commerce: it works because it's secret.

Computers have grown to become a very central and important part of our lives. Our computers contain not only work-related material, but much highly personal ephemera.

But as the relationship we have with our computers has evolved, there has been no update to the covenant we have with those in whose hands we place our computers.

Firstly, there are Web sites, like Victoria's Secret and Amazon -- we tell these sites where we live. We tell them what we like to buy when no-one is looking. We trust them not to tell anyone else; but what about the sites themselves? What's the difference between telling Jeff Bezos you're into Mapplethorpe and telling a random stranger?

Then there's the companies that make our operating systems. They want you to put your personal stuff on their servers. Microsoft and Apple both want to know more about what their customers use their computers for - and a lot of people are going along with it.

Why? What have Gates and Jobs ever done to win your trust? Both companies promise "security" - we won't tell anyone else about your secrets - but neither has established a good case for why anyone should tell them.

Finally, there's you guys. When a customer brings a computer in for service, you treat it as a product - it's defective, fix it. But the product is more than a product. It is some people's most intimate possession.

A friend of mine had a computer serviced recently - dodgy sound card. In the process of testing, the tech had fiddled in the "Movies" folder, and had found some stuff that's no more your business than it was the tech's. My friend had placed some of his deepest secrets in the trust of this tech, who had completely and utterly - and apparently obliviously - violated that trust.

"Don't worry," he said, with a wink, "I won't tell anyone".

Matthew JC. Powell has no secrets. Hack into his e-mail at and see for yourself.

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