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Online life can be convenient as well as dangerous

| Monday, May 18, 2009, 12:00 p.m.

Caitlin Molloy is so proficient at text-messaging that she can put her cell phone in the pocket of her pullover sweatshirt, type a note with proper grammar and send it to a friend without looking at the glowing screen.

"I can be at home watching a movie, doing my calculus homework and texting three people at the same time," said Molloy, 18, of Pine. "Technology makes life so much easier."

Explosive growth of the cyberworld has turned teenagers into technological multitaskers and built entirely online businesses. But some warn this virtual world has created another field of addiction and sparked cyberwars capable of grinding countries to a halt.

In March, an estimated 1.6 billion people, or 23.8 percent of the world population, were Internet users — up from 16 million people, or 0.4 percent of the population, using the Web in 1995, according to data collected by surveying groups such as Nielsen Online and the International Telecommunication Union for marketing purposes.

The audience propelling this growth is primarily teenagers and people in their 20s, said Robert Kraut, a professor in Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

And that could mean that many others aren't living in this "virtual world."

"Younger kids are too technologically unsophisticated to know what to do, and older people in their primary earning years have too much stuff to do," Kraut said. "And retirees, though they no longer have too much to do, have difficulty changing habits and learning technology."

Kraut, who is working on a book about the design of online communities, said the "sweet spot" for introducing technology and networking sites is college-age students, who want to stay connected to old friends and quickly make new ones.

Technology then spreads to older and younger users. For example, the social networking site Facebook, begun with college students in 2003, had a 276.4 percent growth rate among 35- to 54-year-olds in the past six months.

"People are basically spending or living an increasingly large percent of their lives in cyberspace," said computer science professor Norman Sadeh, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Mobile Commerce Lab. "Whether it's e-mail or other channels available through the Web, clearly there is a demand among people for sharing more information."

That world comes with risks. Online predators exploit and kidnap children. People are bilked out of thousands of dollars by e-mail "phishing" schemes. Job-seekers say opportunities slip away because of unsavory Internet postings from their youth.

"On the one hand, there is this demand from people to share a lot of information, but increasingly people are recognizing that you don't necessarily want to be completely open about everything you share; you want to be selective," Sadeh said. "Because once you release information, it's out there. ... People just don't realize that, and tend to give more weight to instant rewards and worry less about long-term consequences."

Cell phones are mini-computers, enabling people to communicate instantly, no matter where they are. Social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, do more than help distant friends maintain relationships; they communicate a nonprofit's mission or organize community meetings. Twitter, a free messaging service, lets people update anyone about mundane goings-on in their lives. Flickr provides a site for people to share photos.

Computer use can be addictive, but spending hours on the Internet doesn't necessarily point to an addiction, said Hilarie Cash, co-founder of Internet/Computer Addiction Services in Seattle. It's when that activity costs the user sleep or time with family, school or work, she said. "Your life narrows down to becoming a life on screen."

Still, growing Internet use is good for businesses.

Heinz Co. is incorporating radio-frequency identification tags into products for Sam's Club. The tags can be detected from more than 10 feet away, eliminating the need for barcode scanning.

"Theoretically, you could put all your items in the cart and push it out the door," said Tom Petrini, associate projects leader at Heinz. "There'd be no need to stand in line at the cash register because the store would have your account information. And inventory is up to the second, in real-time, so you'd know if your product is at the end of an aisle and how much is on the shelf."

Petrini holds master's degrees in business and information systems from Duquesne University's Techno MBA program, which streamlines requirements so business students graduate able to function in an increasingly technological environment.

"Just about any business you can think of is using the Internet," said Kathleen Hartzel, associate professor of information systems management at Duquesne. "And in advertising ... using the Web is an advantage. You can target your message to people who are already searching for your product."

Yet, as legitimate businesses learn to use the Internet to their advantage, nefarious operations have mastered it.

"It's not your regular criminals online anymore," said James Beiber, an information technology specialist and adjunct professor of cyberintelligence studies at the University of Pittsburgh. "They're tech-savvy criminals who are making use of technology to automate their work. They can flip the switch and the computer does all the work for them."

The Internet Crime Complaint Center, which collects reports of cybercrime, received more than 275,000 complaints last year, up from 207,000 in 2004. The amount of money lost increased 289 percent, up from $68.1 million in 2004 to $265 million in 2008.

Flip-the-switch operations include those ubiquitous e-mails promising to share an inheritance if you send money, or e-mails seeking a credit card account number and password to fix a fictitious problem. Some even come as job offers luring people to unwittingly launder money for organized crime.

"They say, 'You can work from home; we're going to send you money orders and you cash them and keep 10 percent,'" said Lorrie Cranor, who directs Carnegie Mellon's CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Center. "Most of these people have no idea that they're mules. ... The solution to these problems is public education. These things that look too good to be true, are."

Wombat Security Technologies, an online company created by Cranor and others affiliated with Carnegie Mellon, helps people identify e-mail scams.

Bigger cybercrimes require international cooperation to halt, Beiber said.

In 2007, an attack from Russia on Estonia shut down the European country by flooding government and bank networks with requests, overloading servers and crashing computers. People couldn't access money from ATMs or use credit cards.

"It shut down the entire government and banking system. Eventually, it caused riots," Beiber said. "The odds of that happening here• Well, we're a lot bigger and more diversified, but nothing's impossible."

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