Does Obama want to tap your computer?

Rumors that Uncle Sam wants to use our own computers to spy on us are raging across the blogosphere. Fortunately, they're not true, no matter what Glenn Beck says

As conspiracy theories go, this one's a doozy. It seems the Obama Administration is secretly trying to turn your computer into a surveillance tool by inducing you to trade in your old car.

If that doesn't sound completely loony to you, then you're probably a fan of Glenn Beck. In a five-minute segment broadcast last Friday [video], Beck "uncovers" some frightening language on the Cars.gov "cash for clunkers" site. The site is set up for people who want to claim a tax rebate when they trade in their old gas guzzlers for a fuel-efficient model, and for dealers to get reimbursed the cost of the rebate by Uncle Sam.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "Uncle Sam's IT dashboard: Your tax dollars at work" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

The scary language reads in full:

This application provides access to the DoT CARS system. When logged on to the CARS system, your computer is considered a Federal computer system and is the property of the United States Government. It is for authorized use only. Users (authorized or unauthorized) have no explicit or implicit expectation of privacy.

Any or all uses of this system and all files on this system may be intercepted, monitored, recorded, copied, audited, inspected, and disclosed to authorized CARS, DoT, and law enforcement personnel, as well as authorized officials of other agencies, both domestic and foreign. By using this system, the user consents to such interception, monitoring, recording, copying, auditing, inspection, and disclosure at the discretion CARS or the DoT personnel.

Unauthorized or improper use of this system may result in administrative disciplinary action and civil and criminal penalties.

According to Beck and the "experts," this means anyone who uses Cars.gov to buy or sell a car will have their PCs taken over by Uncle Sam, in perpetuity. Or as FoxBabe Kimberly Guilfoyle puts it:

Guess what, they can continue to track you basically forever. Once they've tapped into your system the government of course has malware systems and tracking cookies and they can tap in any time they want.... it's so broad they can just about do anything with it, saying that it's in the government's interest....

Of course, this "news" has been bouncing around the conservative blogosphere ever since. (Kudos to Cringe reader M. A. for bringing it to my attention.)

There are a few problems with this story, besides Guilfoyle's ditzy ignorance of how computers and networks operate. ("Malware systems"? Hello?)

For one thing, this disclaimer is for car dealers participating in the program, not consumers, which somehow escaped the eagle eyes of Beck, et al. They apparently also missed the key phrase "when logged on to the CARS system..."

So while car dealers are connected to the vast digital hydra that is the federal computing network, looking to get reimbursed by our Uncle, they're part of the federal computing network. And when they log off, they're not. Stop me if that's a difficult concept to grasp.

It's no different than logging on remotely to your employer's corporate network from your own PC. You boss has the right to monitor your activity if he/she wants to (and, according to surveys conducted by the American Management Association, most large enterprises do, though not in a 24/7 Big Brother Is Watching kind of way). Your company's IT department has the right to ensure your system isn't introducing malware onto the network or leaking confidential information to its competitors.

In short, when you're on the boss' turf, you play by the boss' rules. When you log off, those rules don't apply any more, no matter what the bobble-heads on Fox News tell you.

The third point Beck missed: This language isn't new. The same disclaimer, save for one or two proper nouns, has been used on federal and state Web sites since at least 2001, and probably much earlier. (Extra points for Cringesters who can identify the original source of this disclaimer.)

It can be found on the sites of Los Alamos National Labs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, FermiLabs, Sandia National Labs, the Health Physics Society, Oak Ridge National Labs, and the University of Tennessee, to name a handful.

Do I believe the government should be messing about on private citizens' computers, just because they want to take advantage of a federal program? Absolutely not. But I don't believe that's what's happening here. This is just fearmongering, grasping at anything in order to generate controversy (and ratings, of course).

As Beck says near the end of the segment: “These are evil people... wicked, crazy, frightening people.”

I think he's right. But only when watching himself in the monitor.

So do you think Uncle Sam wants to "own" your computer? Strap on your Reynolds Wrap Head Gear and post your conspiracy theories below, or e-mail them to me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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