Convenient Disaster

John was most of the way to work when he realized that he hadn’t started the dishwasher as he promised his wife he would. Taking out his phone, he tapped on an icon and the screen displayed the words “Power On.” Smiling, he put the phone back in his pocket, the dishwasher now starting up. The dishes would be clean when he and his wife returned from work. An hour later, the phone in his pocket chimed. Recognizing the specific chime, he knew that someone was ringing the doorbell at his house. He remembered that today was the day that the furnace repair people were stopping by to change the filters and do an inspection. Again taking out his phone, he verified from the video on the screen that it was indeed the furnace people, he pressed a button that unlocked the door and passed along his voice telling the workers to come on in. A hyalf hour later the phone chimed again, telling him that his front door had been opened and closed, and he verified on video that it was the furnace people leaving. Bringing up his banking app, he casually paid the bill that had been emailed to him by the furnace company workers. As the day wore on, cameras at home along with the other security features would verify his children’s arrival home from school and even allow him to check on the family dog. Later, as he was coming back home, he would use his phone to turn on some house lights and turn up the heat on his newly tuned furnace –assuming his kids hadn’t beat him to it.

This isn’t science fiction, the technology exists today. It’s in its fledgling stages, but it won’t be long before this technology is as commonplace as the smartphone itself. Network access will create tremendous convenience and utility in addition to messaging and media entertainment already in ubiquitous use. 

Of course, if John could do all of this, the spooky truth is that technological bad actors will be able to have all of the same access John does, from starting his car and unlocking its doors, to manipulating his bank accounts and investment portfolio. With every elevation of technological convenience comes a proportional increase in vulnerability. But it doesn’t stop at the personal level, the same weaknesses apply to society’s infrastructure components: power, water, waste disposal, traffic control –you name it. Never mind the exploding number of cameras that provide real time views of more and more square footage of the planet, seismic and wave sensors, and the satellites and towers that link it all together. The more we rely on technology in our lives, the more vulnerable we become.

The people wearing black hats are no longer pimply faced geeks trying to demonstrate their prowess to their peers by wrecking a little havoc on obvious targets. Countries and stateless entities employ highly organized and highly competent forces whose entire purpose is to map out vulnerabilities and identifying the weakest points of the things that permit us to survive. This isn’t conspiracy theories about secret cabals, Trilateral Commissions, and a tyrannical government enslaving the people in an attempt to destroy gun rights. This is a very real and observable threat that exists right now, and makes the problems of assault weapon availability virtually irrelevant by comparison. Imagine a threat to an entire nation, nevermind a school yard, awful as those shooting tragedies are.

It’s nice to hear the President bring up cyber security. It’s about time that the government, through law enforcement and military channels, finally starts to address the threats. Especially considering that law enforcement and military networks are breached with alarming regularity. As the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm, and the landscape of the networks that exist for our national protection have had hacker flags planted on them for ages, almost with impugnity. It’s a difficult fight to wage when the enemies of freedom and privacy are greater in number and competence than the protectors are. Well beyond a spooky concept, it’s become a horrifying reality. What’s worse is it will only get worse.

The point here is not to pen an alarmist article. The point is education. To try and pass the word that cyber security is the business of everyone that employs networked technology. To encourage everyone to take proper precautions no differently than we take for granted in intimate relations. We’ve become more sophisticated in our social circles, employing education, protection and a large dose of plain common sense. The same thing needs to happen in our technological circles. 

In terms of computer use, we have to realize that a personal lapse of vigilance and preemptive action not only can –but will result in our devices becoming an accessory to cyber bad guys. If we don’t employ the very best in installed computer security suites and relentlessly keep them updated, we could become unwilling and unknowing cogs in a distributed machine of havoc. The people who swat away the words of warning like a camper fans at gnats can, these days, be tatamount to treason. A dramatic statement? Yes. But accurate. Even those of us who flourish in the realms of online activity are continually surprised by just how insidious and catastrophic the actions of cyber assailants can be.

If you take away anything from this article, let it be paranoia. I’m as paranoid as I can be and the character trait has served me well, keeping me protected from the world of malware and its trojans, worms, viruses and sleepers. Directed paranoia isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As the adage goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean no one is after you. So as you travel through the day posting statuses, tweets, photos and videos, location check-ins, and your Pinterest in something, you’re probably sharing them all with people you’d prefer not to. The solution is to be guarded in what you share –and to do all in your power to make sure that you aren’t accidentally sharing information unawares because of a lapse in your own personal computer, tablet, and phone security. And for God’s sake, never believe in any claim that “your information is safe.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Knowledge is power, and knowledge is the compilation of information. Better to be a collector than a purveyor. When offered the option for technological convenience, stop and weigh that convenience against the vulnerability it comes with, and remember there’s always an unseen cost in addition to the visible price. As Robert Heinlein wrote in so many of his stories TANSTAAFL! 

There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.