May 23, 2007

Tech Myths: Busted and Confirmed

We examine common tech beliefs and do some digging to find out what's true--and what's trumped up.

We hate to break it to you, but Bill Gates is not going to give you money just for forwarding an e-mail. Eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda at the same time won't cause your head to explode (though we don't recommend mixing Mentos and Diet Coke). The Harry Potter books are not a secret plot to promote witchcraft and satanism. And that story about Richard Gere and his pets? We don't even want to go there.
These are, of course, urban legends that have been circulating on and off the Internet for ages. For more, see " The Top 25 Web Hoaxes and Pranks." But they're not the only misconceptions out there: Many intelligent, experienced computer users believe things about technology that simply aren't true.
We came up with 15 common myths in the tech world and did some digging to reveal the real story. Some rumors are wholly bogus. Others turned out to have more than a grain of truth in them. To give you a sense of how real these myths are, we've created a little 1 to 5 scale with 5 being totally bogus and 1 signifying that the rumor is true.

We hope this research will make you a little wiser when you encounter future tales of technology--whether they're fact, fiction, or something in between.

Myth 1: If you download files from a peer-to-peer network, the MPAA or RIAA will know who you are.

Bogus Meter: 2.5 out of 5
It all sounds like George Orwell's 1984: "If you are downloading movies, television shows, music, or video games using a P2P network, the files that you have downloaded can be traced back to your IP address," says MPAA spokesperson Elizabeth Kaltman.
But BayTSP, which keeps watch on file-sharing networks like BitTorrent and eDonkey, is a tad less self-assured. When the company monitors these services for various clients, it can indeed capture a file swapper's IP address, the date and time of the download, the name of the file, and information on the individual's Internet service provider--but only for large downloads.
"If the file is big enough--a movie or software application (as opposed to a single song)--it is highly likely that BayTSP can identify an individual before that person has completed the entire file download," says Jim Graham, spokesperson for BayTSP. "Not 100 percent likely, but pretty close. We never claim to have complete insight into every downloader."
Connecting an IP address to an actual name or physical address isn't a sure thing either. Typically, attorneys for the record and movie industries approach ISPs or universities with evidence of alleged copyright infringements. It is up to that organization to identify its customers based on their IP address--and not all of them comply.
There are other challenges as well. Peter Eckersley, staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation , says that using anonymous IP networks, anonymizing proxies (sites or servers that let you keep your IP address hidden while surfing the Web), or open Wi-Fi connections can make it much harder to trace your identity. Note, though, that using a dynamic IP address via DHCP will not protect you. ISPs keep track of who was using a certain IP address at a particular time, and if they're willing to cough up that information, you could be hosed.
Myth 2: Using third-party ink in your printer voids the warranty.
Bogus Meter: 5.0 out of 5
15 Tech Myths: Busted and Confirmed (© PC World)
This one has bogus written all over it--in any kind of ink. According to Canon, Epson, and Lexmark, using another company's ink cartridge or refills does not automatically nix your warranty. (However, PC World tests have shown that using third-party inks may not yield the best results.)
The exception to this rule is if the ink itself causes a problem with the printer. Epson spokesperson Cheryl Taylor likens it to the 50,000-mile warranty on your new radial tires. "Your car tire has a warranty on its tread life," she says. "If the tread wears out before it's supposed to, it's covered by the warranty. If you go out and slash your tire, well, something's wrong with your tire, but that's not damage covered by the warranty."

Myth 3: If you type a URL into your browser, you're safe from phishing attacks.
Bogus Meter: 3.0 out of 5
The surest route to having your identity stolen is to click a link inside a phishing e-mail and naively hand over your personal information. But typing into a browser is no guarantee that you'll foil the phishers.
There are at least two dangers still lurking, says Dave Jevans, chairman of the Anti-Phishing Working Group.
The first is "pharming" or "domain name poisoning" attacks, which intercept legitimate URLs en route to their destination and redirect the requests to bogus sites. So far, a handful of pharming attacks have struck domain name servers on the Internet, including one in February that targeted the Web sites of at least 50 financial institutions. Jevans says the only defense against pharming is to type or bookmark the address of the site's secure log-on page (it should begin with https:), since pharming attacks tend to target the top-level page of financial sites. However, you also should be on the lookout for warnings from your browser that the page's security certificate is invalid, in case the pharming attack has gone deeper.
The second danger is malware, which can achieve the same effect as phishing by rewriting your PC's Hosts file or otherwise hijacking your browser. But there are ways to protect yourself from that threat, says Fred Felman, chief marketing officer for MarkMonitor, which provides brand and fraud protection for Fortune 500 firms. According to Felman, if you keep your system patched, your firewall running, and your spyware and virus scanners up to date, you'll greatly reduce the odds of becoming yet another victim. Programs like the free Spybot Search & Destroy or WinPatrol can help protect your Hosts file.
Myth 4: Google finds everything on the Web, and once it has your information, it can't be removed.
Bogus Meter: 4.0 out of 5
Though it sometimes feels like the invisible fingers of Google touch everything, it's really not so. Google will find something on the Web only if another site links to that page, notes Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of Search Engine Land. "If you don't want information found, then don't put it on the Web at all, or ensure it can only be viewed with a password," he says. "Google doesn't do passwords."
You can also keep Google's searchbot from indexing your site--or get it to remove pages it's already found--by following the instructions at Google Webmaster Central. If the site has already been spidered, however, it will take time before the results are flushed from Google's cache.
The trickier question is how to remove personal information from Google if it's on a site that's not under your control. You can politely ask the site owner to remove the page or block Google from spidering it. If the owner refuses, and the site contains sensitive information like your Social Security number or copyrighted material, you can ask Google to delete it from its index. Otherwise you may need the services of a site like ReputationDefender, which attempts to eliminate inaccurate, embarrassing, or offensive material about you for a $30 fee--but offers no guarantees.

Myth 5. You're fully protected when you buy something on eBay.
Bogus Meter: 3.5 out of 5
The world's biggest auction site and its online payment division PayPal offer an arsenal of tools to guard against fraudsters, con artists, and the criminally stupid. But the protection falls short of 100 percent.
"When buyers use PayPal to purchase a physical item on, they are automatically provided with $200 of coverage on the transaction," says eBay spokesperson Catherine England. "If the buyer uses PayPal to purchase an item from an eBay seller who is PayPal Verified, then the transaction automatically has up to $2000 of coverage."
Unfortunately, if you pay by some other method--personal check, money order, or wire transfer--all bets are off. These protections also don't apply to nonphysical items, such as software or electronic documents. And if you're fooled by a misleading or confusing item description, you may be out of luck.
For example, PR professional Greg P. thought he got a great deal when his $300 auction bid scored him a Microsoft Xbox. If he had merely received a broken Xbox, Greg P. would have been covered. But what he actually bought was a Word document listing places where he could buy Xboxes at a discount. Because (a) the item he purchased was electronic, not physical, and (b) the item for sale was accurately described, even though it displayed a photo of an Xbox, PayPal's Buyer Protection did not apply.
Myth 6: Static images on a plasma TV will burn in, so you can't leave them on for too long.
Bogus Meter: 2.0 out of 5
15 Tech Myths: Busted and Confirmed (© PC World)
Plasma burn-in is not a myth, but it's something that most people need not worry about. According to, plasmas and some CRTs can suffer from burn-in when "a static image such as a video game, stock or news ticker, or station logo remains on-screen for an extended period. Over time, these images can become etched into the phosphor coating, leaving faint but permanent impressions on-screen."
Crutchfield product advisor Dallas Simon says this is extremely rare, since the image refreshes itself during commercial breaks and when you change channels. But it can be a problem for hard-core gamers, who may be playing the same first-person shooter for hours at a stretch, notes Andre Sam, a sales specialist for Best Buy in New York City. For instance, many titles display a static set of in-game statistics, such as scores, medals, energy bars, and radar.
Still, thanks to advances in plasma technology, newer flat panels are less likely to suffer from burn-in. "Like anything, if you abuse it you will probably break it," says Paul Meyhoefer, VP of Marketing and Product Planning for Pioneer Electronics. "With that said, new generations of plasma TVs have made significant improvements with things like the phosphors, cell structure, and filters to alleviate this issue."

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