Searcher Vol.8, No. 5 • May 2000 
Dangerous Data Ahead: A Searcher’s Look at the Age of Misinformation to Come
by Anne Mintz
Director of Knowledge Management, Forbes Inc.

EmmerceIn the past, we who worry about the quality of electronic data have always assumed that our concerns stemmed from the results of incompetence. Dirty data was the expression coined for erroneous content, ranging from typographical errors to data entry errors to mangled nine-track tapes sent to search services, found on online commercial search services. Quality control over the input process from soup to nuts was the solution to this problem. I’m not suggesting that the problems involving dirty data have been resolved, however, another range of issues regarding online data has begun to emerge and needs to be addressed.

In this age of Internet nomads and mass acceptance of online information on the World Wide Web, what if new dangers emerge, not from a lack of competence by database publishers or searchers, but out of a malevolent competence? How many ways can the new technologies be used to support lies, deception, misdirection, spin control, propaganda, and all other forms of misinformation? What protections exist or could be developed?

Internet nomads often lack the background and training to evaluate basic information sources. Even experts could find themselves gulled by smarter experts working behind the scenes. Well-trained and suspicious information professionals constitute one level of protection, but they are not generally available to the average seeker of electronic information.

End users often lack the background and training to even criticize basic information sources. Even when they exist — and that is often not the case — legal protections may not hold. In most cases, Web-based data comes free to searchers. These days you can even get a free computer in return for an ISP sign-up. Does “no contract” mean “no liability”? You get what you pay for? Is there any liability involved and for whom?

Over the next several months, Searcher will devote a series of articles to studying specific aspects of this emerging age of misinformation. Beginning with this issue, “The Sidebar” columnist Carol Ebbinghouse devotes her thinking to the legal aspects of this topic. Carol will explore state and local criminal activity on the Net and all civil types of actions and focus on crimes against businesses, aspects of healthcare fraud, and stock touting in chat rooms. She looks at what means of redress and restitution may exist for situations where no money changes hands for a service or product, perhaps because the data provider derives revenue from advertisers or sponsors.

We have begun to see other issues emerging and being covered in the mainstream press. The New York Times and other publications regularly publish stories about privacy issues and stock manipulation in chat rooms, bringing these issues front and center to the Internet nomads who are coming to rely on this medium for meeting various information needs. The Searcher community is already familiar with many of these issues. In this provocative and insightful series, authors and columnists will delve into the issues more substantially to get at the larger issues that loom in the future due to technological advances and lower barriers to access.

What other kinds of topics may we cover? What about promises that are made but not met by site sponsors to deliver goods, thereby causing losses to the customers? What about sites that supply sophisticated false advertising that looks like objective information? What services — or disservices — will occur due to processing individual search and purchasing behavior patterns? Who’s selling my data and what data? To whom is the data being sold and what are those people doing with it?

How much trouble are we in here? How much deeper could it get? And how can we get out of harm’s way?

Ten Quick Caveats
While you’re waiting for the detailed assistance coming in future columns, protect yourself with these few steps:
1. Always know with whom you’re dealing
2. Check on guarantees and return policies.
3. Never give out your password, even to your Internet provider. 
4. Credit card numbers may be vulnerable, but they are the safest way to pay because the customer won’t get stuck with the bill if the goods are not either as advertised, or not delivered at all. 
5. Avoid using electronic fund transfer, checks, or money orders since you cannot rescind them like you can a credit card charge. 
6. Know the exact terms of sale, who pays for shipping, and warranty policies, if any. 
7. Read all the fine print. Watch for words such as “refurbished,” “discontinued,” and “close-out,” especially relating to electronic equipment. 
8. Correct any billing problems immediately in writing.
9. Keep good records.
10. And keep reading Searcher for more tips to come.

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