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Monday, September 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Security has a cost: speed, convenience


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Security is starting to take its toll on the quality of our Internet experience.

You're probably thinking I meant "lack of security." But I didn't. The fact is, making the Net secure means sacrificing a certain amount of the speed, utility and convenience that made online computing so seductive in the first place.

Taken individually, each of the extra steps required for security reasons is pretty minor. You might not even notice them. Or if you do, you might attribute them to online randomness or software glitches.

For example, a friend recently complained that Mozilla's new Firefox browser was slower on various sites than Internet Explorer. But Mozilla suppresses pop-ups and spyware, where Internet Explorer does not. For the same reason that stuff gets through a sieve faster than a filter, IE has a speed advantage.

Here's another case: When I use my EarthLink mailbox for the first time in a week or two, it doesn't send the mail as quickly as usual.

Instead, the system delays the transmission, often for several minutes, while it checks to make sure it's from a legitimate source. As long as I use the mailbox regularly, mail goes through quickly. It's only when I'm off the account for a while that the delay pops back up.

Or try changing passwords with your Internet service provider. It used to be that the new password went into effect almost immediately. Now there's a wait, sometimes of several hours, to make sure the change is legitimate. Meanwhile, ontact them if you have not.

Some days the Internet seems interminably slow. Usually it means that your provider is fighting off a spam, worm or viral attack. Comcast may even reset your connection, often forcing you to reboot.

In these trying times of hacking, identity theft and nasty software, all of this is to be expected. Increased airport security means longer waits for flights. Increased bank security means having to confirm and repeat ID information several times (to the point you want to scream, "I already answered that!") Should the Internet be any different?

I was particularly reminded of the extent that security hurdles have clogged things up when I changed Web-host providers recently. Doing so requires changing Internet-account settings for servers and e-mail.

In the good old days, changed settings would go into effect in a couple of hours, if not sooner.
 
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This time around, it took nearly three days for my mail settings to get updated. In the meantime, my e-mail was flakier than a box of Kellogg's.

There are good security arguments for forcing these hassles and delays. A stolen laptop with automated passwords on numerous accounts can enable a thief to play havoc with Internet mail, Web sites and e-transactions. A junked or recycled PC with an unerased disk is a treasure trove of illegitimacy in unscrupulous hands.

Delaying updates allows time for the victim to contact providers and cancel or lock out accounts.

So it might be said that with online security, the old athletic saw applies: No pain, no gain.

Nobody's arguing that we should forgo security measures for the sake of convenience. Think of it this way: Instead of spending all that time closing down pop-ups, deleting spam, configuring firewalls and dealing with other threats, you'll have to wait a little longer for each interaction to go through. It's the price you pay for protection.

Here's the daunting part: We're just getting started with true security on the Web. The chain of interactions that makes up Internet computing is only as strong as its weakest links. Bolstering each and every one will give a different feel to going online.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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