When theft is an easy sell

Comic books used to carry back-page ads for "X-ray specs." Aimed at adolescent boys, they gamely promised to bestow upon buyers the power to see through clothing.

Today there's a pop-up ad online for an easy-to-conceal, golf-ball-size video camera. Aimed at Web-surfing adults, the ad touts legitimate uses for the device - child monitoring, for one. It also appears to suggest, with a wide-angle wink, a few illicit (and illegal) applications.

The difference? Product No. 2 can deliver, and it probably sells.

Cheap technology has spawned cottage industries, experts say, that profit from enabling acts that skirt the law. The phenomenon is hardly an underground one.

Spam ads now offer cable descramblers - openly hawked in mainstream magazines and shipped via FedEx - to help "consumers" pull in programming they won't have to pay for.

So is this just another youth phenomenon, spurred by a generation that has convinced itself that if something can be ripped out of the ether and burned into some private storage format, it is therefore free?

Not really. As today's lead story explains, it's a tactic some otherwise straight-arrow grown-ups seem to see as an easy and harmless way to buck "inordinate" fees.

Some observers say it will carry a cost for us all.

* * *

Editor's note: Seldom does a story generate the kind of firestorm of reader feedback we have received in response to David Francis's "Economic Scene" column of last Monday - more than 700 e-mails in the first three days alone.

David's columns often explore an argument being advanced by those on one side of an issue or another. Last week, he addressed the subject of US aid to Israel.

The backdrop: Moves are currently afoot to increase such aid.

Specifically, David laid out for readers the details of a controversial report prepared by economist Thomas Stauffer - and commissioned by the US Army War College.

In the report, Mr. Stauffer presented his tally of the total cost of such aid, some elements of which are not widely known.

Some letter writers commended David for alerting them to this alternative perspective.

But many others condemned him - sometimes using similar phrasing, occasionally employing a rather threatening tone - for not adopting in his column the kind of balanced, point-counterpoint approach that is required in an objective news story.

Writing as a columnist, David was not obliged to take that approach.

Moving forward, the Monitor will work to do a better job of distinguishing between the works of our columnists and reported news, starting with a "column" label on the weekly "Economic Scene."

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