July 16, 2005

White Lies Help Stressed Computer Users

SAN FRANCISCO -- High-technology tricks once seen as the purview of hackers are now in the hands of ordinary people.

Gadgets these days are full of surprises, and not just in the 'gee whiz' sense of unexpected possibility, but also in their growing powers to manipulate or deceive.

Simple tricks allow one to appear to be hard at work in the office while actually forwarding calls, e-mails and instant messages to your mobile phone. One can backdate e-mails through rolling back a computer's built-in clock or use background phone noises to concoct convincing excuses not to go to work.

"Instead of being a slave to technology, you can master it, you can make it look like you are working when and where you are not," said Marc Saltzman, 35, the author of "White Collar Slacker's Handbook" published in June.

Saltzman says computer trickery has become mainstream as the not-super-tech savvy people seek ways of coping with a 24x7 work culture and the increasing inability of people to dodge uncomfortable questions in an era of "always-on" broadband, mobile phone and instant messaging connections.

"Just because you can be reached everywhere doesn't mean you have to be in touch all the time," Saltzman said in a phone interview. "The question is how do you turn the tables?"

The book, published by technical publisher Que, provides a how-to manual for computer users to tell little white lies to deceive friends and colleagues.

But the ease with which technology can be used to bend the truth can just as easily be used for criminal activity such as identity theft and other crimes.

"Technology and computers have given dishonest people an ability to pretend that they're someone they're not," said Martin Reynolds, an analyst at technology research firm Gartner Group. "Now, if you have a minute amount of technical savvy you can wreak a lot of havoc."

He cited a recent case of nine-year-olds who scanned dollar bills into a computer, printed out the fakes and used them to buy snacks at their school's cafeteria.

"With an inkjet printer you can create virtually any document that you want to these days," Reynolds said.


Missed a deadline? No problem.

One simple trick to "reverse" time is to backdate the clock settings on your computer. E-mails will then appear to have been sent earlier. Of course, workers need to remember to reset their clock to the correct time afterward.

"It will certainly prove that you sent the e-mail when you said you did," Saltzman said. "You can just blame the delay on the network."

In Japan, the land of a thousand "face-saving" apologies, consumers can invent convincing sounding excuses for bosses or spouses by using a small keychain device with prerecorded sounds that allows users to pretend to be where they are not.

"Alibi Intersection," as the device is known, comes with six buttons that generate noises such as driving a car, standing in a train station or hearing a front-door chime. A software version for mobile phones that goes by the name of SoundCover in Europe and Soundster in the United States is available.

The noises lend aural authenticity to excuses when played in the background of a mobile phone conversation.

Users of Microsoft Outlook, the most popular e-mail management program, can make their bosses think they are burning the midnight oil by composing e-mails that they set up to be sent out far later, say at 1 a.m.

In Outlook, under options, the user can check the box for "Do Not Deliver before" option. Then choose the time and each subsequent message will be held in your outbox until the appointed hour.

Another trick is to sign onto instant messaging systems from home to make it look you are already at work. If your boss isn't in the same office as you, it appears as if you are at work early. You can also decide whether to disable the away feature on your buddy list.

If you are really worried your boss may try to contact you, have the IM message forwarded as a test message (a separate mobile phone technology that works in similar ways to IM on computers), Saltzman suggests.

Analyst Tim Bajarin of research firm Creative Strategies said that while computer trickery has become a fact of life, it is concentrated among younger workers who are more comfortable with new technologies.

"The older computer user pretty much lets the computer lie. They won't tinker because they are worried they are going to screw the machine up," Bajarin said. "Most of this group hasn't figured out how to set their videocassette clock yet."

(Additional reporting by Duncan Martell in San Francisco, Reed Stevenson in Seattle and Kevin Krolicki in Los Angeles)