Busting the Biggest PC Myths

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The government reads everyone's e-mail.

Okay, so we thought this myth was spawned by the same conspiracy theorists who gave us the Gunman on the Grassy Knoll, the Illuminati, and Area 51. After all, how much time does the government really have on its hands?

"It's obviously a myth," says Marc Rotenberg, Georgetown University law professor and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. If a privacy watchdog doesn't buy the myth, no one should, right? Wrong.

"The government may not be reading everyone's e-mail now," he adds, "but that doesn't mean it's not interested in doing that in the future. In a few years, the government might be reading everyone's e-mail." Fortunately, we Americans have the Fourth Amendment. Government agencies--the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA--can't read your e-mail without probable cause, except under special circumstances related to espionage.

The Patriot Act allows the government to read all e-mail of a suspect and of all people who communicate with that suspect. But even privacy watchdogs like Rotenberg don't claim that everyone's e-mail gets the once-over yet.

In the end, conspiracy junkies may feel vindicated. "There are programs that can sort through mass amounts of e-mail, looking for suspicious keywords," says Ari Schwartz of the CDT. He says because intelligence agencies haven't been open about whether they are using such software, you can't rule out the possibility that the government is checking up on you.

If you're feeling uneasy, download an encryption utility such as PGP Freeware, and read "Products for the Paranoid."

Saddam Hussein bought PlayStation 2 consoles to use in Iraq's weapons program.

Back in 2000, United Nations sanctions prohibited Hussein from obtaining computer hardware. According to reports from WorldNetDaily.com, he bought upwards of 4000 Sony PlayStation 2 consoles, intending to cobble together a crude supercomputer for calculating ballistic missile data, designing nuclear weapons, and controlling aerial drones.

This tale has all the hallmarks of an urban legend, including supposed leaked U.S. government documents, unnamed military sources, and a real kicker: Theoretically, Hussein snapped up so many gaming boxes that his spree created a PlayStation 2 shortage.

The only reason we give this fable any credence is the care with which the representative from the Defense Intelligence Agency chose his words when we called. "Yes, various agencies looked into it," he admitted, but he refused to divulge any findings. "If there were potential military applications for any technology, they would be of interest to us." Notice the "if."

DOS is dead.

Microsoft's MS-DOS, introduced in 1981, has earned the computer equivalent of a senior citizen's discount. But it ain't dead yet. According to research firm IDC, just over a million copies of DOS will be used at the end of this year, but that's down from 2.2 million in 2003.

IDC's best guess is that about 1000 new copies of all DOS flavors--MS-DOS, PC-DOS, and the rest--were installed last year. This year? Effectively zip. "There's still some life in it for real specific purposes," says IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky, "but there's zero growth in usage."

If you look hard, though, you can spot DOS in the real world. We've peeked at screens that look decidedly DOS-like in hotels (running ancient reservations systems), restaurants, car repair shops, and dental offices. DOS's most frequent use these days is in embedded applications where the computer does a fixed set of functions. But even there, DOS is getting the boot in favor of Linux.

Microsoft doesn't sell DOS at stores, and there's no way to acquire a new license in the United States or in many other countries; DOS is sold only in India and Singapore, and only through computer builders. The closest equivalent to it is the MS-DOS-compatible FreeDOS. Or bid for DOS on EBay.

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