The Human Touch

From: Chris Rasch (
Date: Sat Apr 14 2001 - 03:39:55 MDT

The Human Touch
Apr 12th 2001

See also the second part:

DESPITE the best efforts of programmers, there are still many things
that computers just cannot do. Examples include distinguishing between
suspicious and legitimate behaviour on a corporate network, or sorting
junk e-mail from genuinely important messages, or providing detailed
answers to particular questions. For these tasks, which require
judgment, expertise and experience that cannot be easily captured in
software, some firms have adopted the unusual tactic of using people
as part of their network infrastructure. Such "cyborg" companies use
computers as levers for the mind, to make the most of precious human

Counterpane Internet Security, based in San Jose,
California, uses this technique to provide a
security-guard service for corporate networks. Its
founder, Bruce Schneier, realised after many years of
working as a security consultant that no network could
ever be made truly secure, no matter how much fancy
hardware and software was available. There would always
be weak spots, often caused by human failings. The best
approach to security, Mr Schneier decided, was to assume
that break-ins will occur-and to use people to spot

Special software exists to identify network intrusions,
but once an attacker has worked out how the software
works, it can be circumvented. Human experts, on the
other hand, are harder to fool, although software is
still needed to enable a single operator to keep watch
on dozens of networks simultaneously. Counterpane's
approach is to install "sentry" machines on its clients'
networks. These relay a stream of status messages to a
central secure operations centre. Human operators
sitting at consoles monitor the status of around 50
sentries at once, watching for anomalous behaviour. If
anything fishy is detected, the alarm is raised and the
client's technical staff can take appropriate action.

Using highly trained people to look out for trouble has
a number of benefits. For a start, there are economies
of scale: since intrusions are rare, each operator can
watch many networks at once. This also enables operators
to spot trends that would otherwise go unnoticed-such as
a hacker using a particular style of attack on several
different networks, or aiming at firms in a particular
business (such as banking or e-commerce). And operators
can make allowances for human foibles, such as
recognising the night-shift operator with chubby fingers
who tends to mistype his password.

Brightmail, based in San Francisco, also uses people to
filter information flowing across the Internet. Its
customers are Internet service providers that want to
stop junk e-mail, or "spam", and messages infected with
computer viruses, before they reach their intended
recipients. This process can be automated, up to a
point, but spammers and virus-writers quickly find ways
to defeat most software filters.

Brightmail's operators monitor decoy e-mail accounts,
looking for new examples of spam or viruses that can
defeat filters. When an example is found, the operators
update the filter, and the new filter is then
automatically relayed to Brightmail's customers. Since
sending out a million junk e-mails takes quite a while,
this rapid response makes it possible to detect and
destroy subsequent messages before they do any damage.

The cyborg firm that comes closest to the sci-fi vision
of people plugging cables into their heads is Keen,
another San Francisco firm. Keen in effect allows
experts to rent out their brains over the Internet,
charging by the minute. Anybody can register on Keen's
website as a "speaker" on a particular subject, such as
computer troubleshooting, tax regulations or tarot-card
reading. Speakers specify when they are available and
set a billing rate, which averages $2 per minute.

Users of Keen who are looking for answers to a
particular question choose a speaker and click a "call
now" button. Keen then calls both the user and the
speaker over the ordinary telephone network. Once the
call is over, the user is billed and is also invited to
give the speaker a numerical rating, which appears on
the website and helps distinguish real experts from
charlatans. Speakers pocket 70% of the call revenue;
some are earning over $2,000 a week.

According to Karl Jacob, the firm's boss, Keen has been
successful-it is one of the 20 most popular Internet
merchants, and has more than 2.5m paying
customers-because people want answers from people, not
computers. Talking to a person is better than reading
even the most detailed list of "frequently asked
questions", he suggests, because it is easier to assess
the trustworthiness of the information provided and to
focus on a particular topic of interest. Keen has just
launched its service in Britain, where a MORI poll found
that nine out of ten people would rather talk to another
person when searching for expert advice than scour the
Internet. Even in the disembodied world of the web,
there is a lot to be said for the human touch.

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