Honolulu Lite


Sunday, December 9, 2001

What to do when your
appliances get too chatty

I was pretty sure U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft had put a tap on my telephone line. After all, in the war against terror, everyone's phones eventually will be bugged, every conversation recorded and every e-mail copied. Individual privacy will be just another victim of friendly fire, cut down in our effort to create a safer world.

But this early in the war, with so many bad guys out there to track down, why would Ashcroft want to tap my line? I don't even know anyone who wears clothing on their heads, even hats.

Nevertheless, every time I used the phone, I would hear a clicking, then an electrical hum for exactly 10 seconds. It would happen several times during a phone conversation, as if someone were monitoring the call at regular intervals.

A couple of times I picked up the phone to make a call and was met by the white-noise gurgling sound of one computer talking to another or the sound of a fax being sent. I was stunned. My phone was talking to somebody by itself!

So, it wasn't John Ashcroft messing with my phone, something in my house was calling out. My first suspect was my computer. It easily had the power to make calls on its own. But why would it do it? Was it lonely? Who would it call? There are worms and viruses that invade a computer via e-mail. One particularly insidious worm will replicate itself and send itself to everyone on your e-mail list. But I could find no trace of a worm or virus. Besides, the noise on the phone occurred even when the computer was off.

So I called Verizon and they sent a guy over to check the phones. After testing the lines, he confirmed any interference had to be coming from inside the house.

That's when my wife happened to hear a clicking sound coming from behind one of the satellite TV boxes. We switched not long ago from cable to a TV service where they put a ray gun-looking thing on your roof and digital service is beamed to you from a distant transmitter. I looked behind the box and there it was: a phone cable running from the box, through a gizmo and behind the desk. I followed the wire to a wall phone jack. This had to be where the calls were coming from. I went to disconnect the line, half expecting to hear the voice of Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey" saying, "What are you doing, Charles? I thought we were friends. Why are you disconnecting me?"

It took a few calls to the TV company before a woman conceded that the box was making calls on its own to their computer and transferring data, a little item they failed to mention when the system was installed. She was vague about what kind of information was being sent to the main computer, saying it was a way to make sure the box was working correctly.

Yeah, right. I'm pretty sure the box was sending out sensitive private information about my television viewing habits, like how I watch a lot of TV in my underwear.

I keep the TV phone line unplugged now. I'm all for new technology, but if someone wants to know what I'm watching on television, they are going to have to come to my house and peek in the windows like any other self-respecting neighborhood snoop.

Alo-Ha! Friday compiles odd bits of news from Hawaii
and the world to get your weekend off to an entertaining start.
Charles Memminger also writes Honolulu Lite Mondays,
Wednesdays and Sundays. Send ideas to him at the
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Suite 7-210,
Honolulu 96813, phone 235-6490 or e-mail

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