10 computing conspiracy theories examined

Hidden truths or ramblings of wackjobs? We investigate...

A conspiracy theory's recipe is disarmingly simple: all you need is an occurrence, the suggestion of a dark cabal, a wilful disregard for evidence and a creative mind. [via techradar]

Critically, however, once released the tale takes on a life of its own and begins galloping around the globe.

As it travels, self-appointed experts begin picking it over, searching out 'the real truth'. Layers upon layers of detailed information are added to what may originally have been an overheard whisper, a lie or just a simple misinterpretation.

Here, PC Plus magazine examines 10 of the top PC-related theories and try to decide, once and for all, whether they are rooted in reality, or are nothing more than the result of too many paranoid and furtive imaginations. The truth is out there.

1. Hidden messages found in the Bible

The Theory: Michael Drosnin claims to have found hidden messages in the Bible using specially written software. Some say it's an elaborate hoax tailored to make money from book sales, but other conspiracy theorists cite rather more sinister motives, given that Drosnin gained the ear of top officials in the Israeli Mossad and the United States Department of Defense.

In his book The Bible Code, Michael Drosnin describes how he used software to search for hidden messages in the Hebrew Old Testament. The messages allegedly foretold events that occurred thousands of years after the Bible was written.

More importantly, other messages are warnings to the present age, the exact time at which computer technology would have been able to unearth them.

Bible messages

FUTURE WARNINGS: In The Bible Code Michael Drosnin claims to have used computers to find warnings of future events in the Bible

PC Plus analysis: Scientific papers presented analyses of Drosnin's results and concluded that they're statistically significant. More recent papers, also reviewed by experts, say that they're not. We wouldn't dare join a debate being held by such eminent mathematicians, but perhaps the Bible itself has something to say on the subject.

According to 1 Corinthians 1:27, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong".

In the light of this verse it would seem surprising that God would have left messages that could only be discovered by a powerful computer, and which would be argued over only by academics. But you'll have to make your own mind up on that one.

2. SETI program is a smokescreen

The Theory: The US government knows that little green men exist – and it also knows that we'll never find them by listening for radio signals. So to keep us off the scent, it promotes futile SETI research.

SETI stands for the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. It works by pointing large radio telescopes into space and listening for radio signals that have the hallmark of intelligence.

To date, the scheme has found nothing, despite over two million years of processing time being clocked up in the SETI@ home program, where volunteers contribute PC time over the internet to analyse signals.

SETI program

COVER-UP: Is this really an alien listening base or perhaps something more sinister?

PC Plus analysis: The well-known Drake equation allows us to work out how many civilisations in the galaxy we might be able to hear radio signals from. The equation itself is widely accepted, but there's considerable debate over the values of the variables it uses. Today's best estimates suggest there may be two or three such civilisations. Needles and haystacks immediately come to mind.

So if it's well-known that the technology will have a very low rate of success, why bother using it? Are the conspiracy theorists correct on this one? Well, wait a minute. NASA might have had a SETI programme at one time, but it doesn't any more. The fact that SETI research now receives no public money seems to derail the idea that the US government are using it to distract us from the real way to reach aliens.

3. Government in Wi-Fi safety cover up

The Theory: Forget mobile phone masts – school kids are now at risk from Wi-Fi access points in schools. Government is aware of the health risks but is suppressing the truth. This is a classic conspiracy theory because it's pretty much impossible to prove.

Most scientists believe that low-power Wi-Fi doesn't constitute a health risk, but the only way to know for sure is to carry out large-scale tests over many years using kids as guinea pigs.


THE WI-FI THREAT: Can Wi-Fi really cause medical problems in children? We think not

PC Plus analysis: We're not doctors, but we are clued up in electronics. In Europe Wi-Fi access points have a maximum output power of a tenth of a watt – but a mobile phone can transmit two watts. As you double the distance to a transmitter, the field strength drops fourfold.

Doing the sums, we conclude that if being two metres from a Wi-Fi access point for six hours a day is supposed to be harmful, using a mobile phone pressed against your skull for a second a day is 10 times worse.

4. Google Earth is subject to censorship

The Theory: Google has succumbed to insidious pressure from world governments to keep their secret geographical sites from prying eyes. Google Earth has brought us what was previously available only to the military: high-resolution satellite images of the entire planet. But some censored areas, it's suggested, are pixellated to prevent us from seeing the juicy details.

Dutch military base

PIXEL POWER: Not so much a theory but more of a fact. Some governments are secretive about their military installations

PC Plus analysis: This has all the hallmarks of a classic conspiracy theory, but it's actually a fact – as the screenshot of a Dutch military base shows quite clearly.

5. Government eavesdrops on emails

The Theory: Project Echelon – a joint initiative by the British, American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand governments – intercepts our phone calls, texts and emails. Powerful computers scan their content looking for certain incriminating keywords.

The government is keeping tight-lipped about this one, but, according to civil liberty campaigners the system can intercept satellite communications, snoop on mobile phones and tap into the public telephone system.

RAF menwith

ECHELON IN ACTION: Worried civil liberties campaigners say that RAF Menwith Hill is a key element of a government spy network

PC Plus analysis: Quite frankly, after 9/11 and 7/7 it would be rather surprising if the American and British governments didn't intercept communications. The motive and the technology are both there.

6. Microsoft prolonged high-def format wars

The Theory: Microsoft fuelled the format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray. While consumers held off on buying either DVD replacement for fears of picking the wrong standard, the software giant planned to steal a march and launch a high-definition download service.

According to the theorists, Microsoft supported HD DVD even though it knew that Blu-ray would win in order to draw out the battle as long as possible.

In the meantime, their alternative – in the form of Windows Media Video 9 – would be brought to market allowing movies to be downloaded at up to 1,920 x 1,080 resolution.

Blu-ray player

FANNING THE FLAMES: Did Microsoft knowingly back HD DVD in the knowledge Blu-ray would win?

PC Plus analysis: Microsoft might have had cause to extend the format war, but if it did it wasn't a great success. Blu-ray sales are now starting to pick up, but Microsoft's download service is nowhere to be seen, and until average broadband speeds improve, it's barely practical for many. This one looks fanciful.

7. No code unbreakable for the CIA

The Theory: The US government has powerful computers that are vastly faster than the speediest known supercomputer and can crack any encoded message. In 2002, a 64-bit encoded message was cracked. It took 331,252 PCs working together for almost five years.

Today's 128-bit ciphers would take 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 times longer to crack, and the best experts can suggest is that by 2055 it would be possible to crack them using $42,000 billion worth of specialist hardware.

That would seem to derail this particular conspiracy theory, but if the US government manages to develop a practical quantum computer then even a 128-bit encrypted message would be instantly crackable.

CIA cyphers

STATE OF THE ART: Even the fastest modern computers struggle with 64-bit messages so we doubt they can crack everything

PC Plus analysis: The fact that any government would crave this capability is indisputable – but most experts agree that none of them has it. One thing's for sure: if the government had this technology then there's no way the CIA would shout about it. As a result, this is one theory that will run and run.

8. Google collects data on our surfing habits

The Theory: Every time we use Google, the words or phrases we enter are recorded so that the company can learn about our surfing habits. Whether your interests lie in the realm of politics or, shall we say, something more 'adult' in nature, our darkest secrets are laid bare.

Motives differ depending on who you listen to. Some say that Google sells the information to advertisers who inundate you with tailored spam. Others suggest that the security agencies are given tip-offs on people searching for bomb-making information.

PC Plus analysis: Google admits that it uses cookies to track your surfing habits and then processes this information to present you with relevant advertisements while you search. But the real crux of this theory is whether Google can link all that information to you as an individual. This is far more unlikely, as the company would need the cooperation of your ISP in order to identify you from your IP address. With all this in mind, we don't advise panicking just yet.

9. US government set up Facebook spy network

The Theory: DARPA (the US government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) used funding to help set up Facebook so that it could use it to collect information on citizens. DARPA's former Information Awareness Office stated that its aim was to collect as much information as possible on everyone. Funding was cut following protests by civil rights activists, but it has been suggested that Facebook now fulfils these aims at no cost to the American taxpayer.


CIA-BOOK: Is Facebook just another CIA venture designed to collect data on the world's citizens? No

PC Plus analysis: There can be no better conspiracy theory than one in which the US government is the alleged antagonist, because one thing's for sure: these guys don't kiss and tell. On the face of it, the theory seems plausible, but we'd have to question the point of it – dissident US citizens surely wouldn't be so stupid as to use the social networking site as a hub for terrorist activity, and we doubt that the White House is interested in pictures documenting just how trashed college students got during Spring Break. Surely the CIA has developed better ways of collecting information on the people that it's interested in by now.

10. Conficker was written by the Chinese government

The Theory: The Conficker worm has received no shortage of publicity in recent months. According to some, it was written by the Chinese government as a test bed for advanced cyberwarfare.

Because its creators could upload new instructions to infected PCs, nobody knew what Conficker might be able to do – and that's what made it so scary. It also made it the stuff of conspiracy theories. In this particular one, the Chinese government will use it to bring the internet to its knees.

PC Plus analysis: This goes against the more conventional theory that suggests the Ukraine is the worm's source. The fact that it doesn't infect PCs with a Ukrainian keyboard layout might be a red herring, but virus expert Eugene Kaspersky is 60 per cent certain that Conficker does have its roots in the Ukraine.

He also believes that its purpose is less sinister than has been suggested. But before you dismiss this talk of cyberwarfare, we should point out the concept does have legs – the Georgian government accused Russia of perpetrating a cyberattack on official websites just before the country was invaded in 2008, and Estonia experienced a cyber blackout in 2007.

Did you like this post? Leave your comments below!
Found this Post interesting? Receive new posts via RSS (What is RSS?) or Subscribe to CR by Email

More Post From The Web