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Cliff Stoll on ''The Net''

Cliff Stoll on ”The Net” — The author weighs in on how likely the Sandra Bullock movie is

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”I usually go to movies to get away from computer screens,” muses Cliff Stoll, astronomer, computer-security expert, and best-selling author of Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway and The Cuckoo’s Egg, his true story of tracking and nabbing a German spy ring operating via the Internet. Breaking his own tradition, the eminently unconventional Stoll ventured to see The Net in order to give us his input on the reality — virtual or otherwise — behind the high-tech events depicted in the film.

”I was sucked in by the surface excitement of it all,” says Stoll, whose favorite films include Citizen Kane and A Thousand Clowns. ”The ‘techie talk’ is largely accurate — the advisers knew what a telnet site and the World Wide Web are.” Nevertheless, he has some second thoughts about The Net‘s basic premise: that with her potentially incriminating disk, lone hacker Angela Bennett (Bullock) poses enough of a threat to the Praetorian cyberterrorists to warrant the deletion of her life.

First up, Stoll didn’t exactly buy Bullock in the part. ”She lacked the passion to be a convincing computer hacker,” he says. ”A yuppie consultant, maybe…” As for the plot, he insists that ”the central lie in this movie is that if you can control computers, then you have power. Look around! Those with lots of information, like librarians, virtually have zero influence.” He also scoffs at the notion that Bullock’s character would ever have such unlimited access on-line. ”The idea that being a systems manager or consultant gives you major unauthorized power isn’t true.” How about her high-speed hacking abilities? ”No programmer can sit down at a system and in a matter of moments make major changes to a database.”

Okay, so is it possible to wipe out a person’s entire existence with one clever keystroke? ”Nobody’s life is entirely on the Internet,” says Stoll. ”It isn’t today; it won’t be tomorrow, or ever. The assumption that all computers are somehow interconnected to a vast network is false. For one thing, the DMV, the Justice Department, and hospitals don’t have their records on the Internet. For another, computers only work the way you want them to about one third of the time — hardly ever in a crunch.”

Is there anything about The Net that rings true? ”What struck me was how much the entire film was devoid of love and passion,” Stoll says. ”Angela was friendless in the end because people on the Internet are interchangeable. The falsity of anonymous friendship came through here. The Internet opens many, many doors,” he sighs, ”but most of them lead to empty rooms.”