From Web Hoaxer to Helper?

Alek Komarnitsky told Internet users they could control the Christmas lights at his house via a live webcam. It was a prank.
Alek Komarnitsky told Internet users they could control the Christmas lights at his house via a live webcam. It was a prank. (Alek Komarnitsky)

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By Steven Levingston
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Pam King believes the Internet hoaxer of Christmases past has mended his ways.

"I trust him -- I know where his heart is," said King, the operations director of the University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research. "I'm just seeing the good in this guy."

The hoaxer, Alek Komarnitsky, is turning his notoriety over a prank involving an Internet display of Christmas lights into an opportunity this year to raise awareness of celiac disease, a genetic disorder that both of his sons have.

Komarnitsky's activities underscore the ambiguous nature of the Internet. His hoax taps our fears and uncertainties about the virtual world: Christmas shoppers worrying about trusting their credit cards to cyberspace; instant messagers wondering if their correspondents are really who they say they are; innocent Internet users tricked into divulging their financial identities.

Komarnitsky's fundraising for celiac research highlights the other side of the Internet: its unparalleled power to bring people together from around the world for a worthy cause.

Komarnitsky's journey into the spotlight began in 2002 when he rigged up his house in Lafayette, Colo., with thousands of Christmas lights. He then told Internet users they could log onto his Web site and not only see the lights via a live webcam but turn the ribbons of color on and off themselves. Hordes flocked to the site.

The spectacle became such a hit on the Internet last year that newspapers, television and radio picked up the story. Komarnitsky has always claimed he created the Web site in the spirit of holiday fun. What he didn't tell people, however, was that it wouldn't be a stretch for anyone who believed in him also to believe in Santa Claus.

After Christmas last year, Komarnitsky came clean. He admitted his Internet set-up was fake: The lights were real, but the live webcam and Internet controls -- ho ho ho! The hoodwinked media jumped on him.

Now Komarnitsky, a computer consultant and self-professed tech geek, wants the world to believe that this Christmas he has turned his hoax into reality. Using his technical skill, he says, he hooked up three webcams that feature live shots of his 26,000 Christmas lights, updated every few seconds. As the clincher, his Web site ( http://www.komar.org/cgi-bin/xmas_webcam ) has buttons that he insists really do allow his Internet visitors to operate the lights.

Komarnitsky suggests on the Web site that if visitors enjoy manipulating the lights, they might consider making a contribution to celiac research at the University of Maryland. The disease, which afflicts his 7- and 4-year-old sons, is a chronic ailment caused by an immune reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat and several other grains. Often misdiagnosed, the disorder is found in one out of every 133 people, according to the center.

But Komarnitsky's new claims can't help but raise a key question. In the virtual world -- and especially given Komarnitsky's past behavior -- how does one believe him? Komarnitsky is doing all he can to conduct online tests for the skeptical and has invited in local reporters, but he acknowledges he will have a tough time convincing some people. "How do you know what's real or not?" he said. "It's especially true on the Internet in this age of the scammer."

Experts familiar with the type of system Komarnitsky claims to have created say it is certainly possible. "Actually it's pretty easy to do," said William Orvis, senior security specialist with the Computer Incident Advisory Capability, an organization under the Department of Energy that helps protect networks. Water companies, for instance, can watch pumps by webcam and turn them on and off remotely via the Internet, Orvis said.

At the celiac center, medical director Alessio Fasano applauds what he accepts as Komarnitsky's latest achievement. "He's proving this can definitely be done," Fasano said. "I have to say, hats off to this fella."

Fasano said Komarnitsky conducted a test over the Internet for the center. Komarnitsky was seen on a webcam leaving his house so he could have no control over the lights. Then Fasano clicked the buttons on the Web site and the lights responded.

"I took control of everything from here," said Fasano, a pediatric gastroenterologist. "I could turn on and off the lights, the music -- everything."

The center has been accepting contributions for about a week, submitted directly to the University of Maryland, not through Komarnitsky's Web site. So far, it has collected about $2,722.

King says that whatever the controversy over Komarnitsky, the important thing is that he is raising awareness of celiac disease. "He really loves the holidays, and I think he's doing a wonderful thing," she said.

And what about his notoriety as an Internet hoaxer? King says she just believes in the spirit of the season -- all that nice stuff about peace and joy and good will toward all. "I don't think he meant any harm to anybody," she said. "Whoever goes to the trouble to put up all those lights on his house has to be spreading the Christmas cheer."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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