A cat among the pigeons

A new device that brings the bar code into the home is causing unforeseen controversy, with some of its first users finding ways of adapting it for applications its maker had not anticipated
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The Independent Online

We are now quite at home with the bar code. It has become a part of everyday life in the retail environment and most products we buy, from baked beans to newspapers, will have one. But the bar code has yet to make the leap into home use. We are constantly reading about internet-ready fridges or wired swing-bins that will order food for you, but it still seems a long way from the mass market.

We are now quite at home with the bar code. It has become a part of everyday life in the retail environment and most products we buy, from baked beans to newspapers, will have one. But the bar code has yet to make the leap into home use. We are constantly reading about internet-ready fridges or wired swing-bins that will order food for you, but it still seems a long way from the mass market.

Now an American company, Digital Convergence, has come up with a domestic application for the humble bar code. The CueCat, a white plastic, cat-shaped bar-code scanner (which looks more like an unfortunate entry in the Ann Summers catalogue than a piece of new technology) is currently being given away in the United States in an attempt to gain rapid acceptance among consumers.

But the CueCat, which will be launched in the UK next year, is not for keeping track of household consumption - ostensibly, it gives the marketing people a link between the printed word and your PC.

The device, which plugs into your PC, is used to read bar code "cues" in magazines and newspapers, which take the reader to a website with more information about a story or to a sales pitch for a related product. However, the reason that the CueCat has been making news in the US is nothing to do with how it could revolutionise advertising. It has far more to do with what the early adopters of the technology have found to do with the gadget and the company's reaction to them.

Hackers who received a free CueCat with their copy of Wired or picked one up at electronics retailer Radio Shack have been dissecting them and finding better uses for them at an impressive pace.

New uses for the CueCat include a torch, a remote control and a domestic bar code scanner, which can be used to catalogue book and CD collections (for those who find mere alphabetical order not quite anal enough). Geeks also came up with a driver which allows the Windows-only CueCat to work on the Linux operating system and, in the spirit of open source, published the code online. It was this, along with the publication of instructions on how to disable the scanner's unique identification number, that prompted Digital Convergence to lay down the law to the hackers.

In a move that surely breaches the old playground law of "once you give you can't get back", Digital Convergence wrote to those who had published details of their CueCat experiments, pointing out that the company still owns the CueCats and can recall them at any time.

This is despite the fact that they were given away free, and in the case of Wired and Forbes readers, to people who didn't even ask for them. As a sop to those who did wish to carry on playing with the CueCat's innards, Digital Convergence offered them the opportunity to sign a developer's licence for $20. But the move merely riled many in the hacker community who were already critical of the practical value of the CueCat and suspicious over privacy issues raised by its unique identification number. The furore inspired one CueCat outlaw, who calls himself Theodore Catzynski, to set up killcat.com, a website with a gallery of photographs that show him terminating the white plastic beast in a variety of spectacular ways, from hatchet to machine gun.

"I'm most bothered by the trend that I see in Digital Convergence's draconian licence agreement for the CueCat," he says. "Claiming the device is 'only on loan and may be recalled at any time' and the various ways in which Digital Convergence has tried to discourage or prevent reverse-engineering or uses of the CueCat other than the ones intended by them. If a company sells a product or, in Digital Convergence's case, spams people with it, how much control can that company have over the product, over how people use it, take it apart, talk about it or publish about it?"

But Digital Convergence doesn't see any problem with its proprietary policy. "We were saying 'we know what you are doing, but you just need to be aware that you might be stepping on some of our intellectual property'," Peter Eschbach, Digital Convergence's vice-president of corporate communications, says. "What we wanted to do was to protect the back end, the intellectual property, so that if you take a Cat and swipe a can of Coca-Cola it goes to the Coca-Cola site, it doesn't go someplace else where it shouldn't go."

Answering privacy concerns, Eschbach reiterates the claim that there is no way that Digital Convergence can track what an individual user is scanning through the CueCat's unique identifying number. "The main reason right now is that little serial number tells us where that Cat came from. By that I mean did they get it from Radio Shack? Was it one of the Cats that was distributed through Forbes? We only ask for five bits of information about you. We ask for your name, which is optional, we need your e-mail to send you your activation code, then we ask you for your gender, your age range and your postal code. Again that is just so if you swipe, for example, something like the weather page in a local paper you'll get the radar picture for where you live."

But for those who find the CueCat irritating there is now the prospect of a more intrusive product from Digital Convergence. This new product acts on an audio cue from the television, which sends your browser scurrying off to retrieve information on what the broadcaster wants you to find out more about, be it a web page about dinosaurs or an advertisement for a sports car.

Gareth Branwyn, editor of technology website, Streettech.com, is no fan of the CueCat, but even less so of Digital Convergence's latest idea. "Yeah, that's really what I want to do - surf bad TV all night, and then when I'm done go to my browser to find it choking to death on ad pages for beer, car and deodorant companies," he says. "I think that the CueCat is cool technology looking for an appropriate application. If the media companies and advertisers distributing this thing had any smarts, they would've offered some real applications that make users want to install and use it and then, once installed, maybe they would use it to save a few key strokes going to adverts and magazine sites."

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