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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Security Is Ruining the Internet

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Another major cyberattack, another wave of articles telling you how to protect your data has me thinking about European ruins. Those medieval fortresses and castles had walls ten feet thick made of solid stone; they were guarded by mean, heavily armored, men. The barbarians got in anyway.

At the time, those invasions felt like the end of the world. But life goes on. Today’s Europeans live in houses and apartment buildings that, compared to castles of the Middle Ages, have no security at all. Yet: no raping, no pillaging. People are fine.

Security is overrated.

The ransomware attack that crippled targets as diverse as FedEx and British hospitals reminds me of something that we rarely talk about even though it’s useful wisdom: A possession that is so valuable that you have to spend a lot of money and psychic bandwidth to protect it often feels like more of a burden than a boon.

You hear it all the time: Change your passwords often. Use different passwords for different accounts. Install File Vault. Use encrypted communications apps. At what point do we throw up our hands, change all our passwords to “password” and tell malicious hackers to come on in, do your worst?

I owned a brand-new car once. I loved the look and the smell but hated the anxiety. What if some jerk dented it? Sure enough, within a week and the odometer reading in the low three digits, another motorist scratched the bumper while pulling out of a parallel parking space. I was so determined to restore the newness that I paid $800 for a new bumper. Which got scratched too. That was 13 years, 200,000 miles and a lot of dings ago. Still drive the same car. I don’t care about dents.

I’m liberated.

The Buddha taught that material attachments bring misery. He was right. During the 1980s crack epidemic addicts stole car stereos to finance their fixes. To avoid smashed windows, New Yorkers took to posting “No Radio” signs on their cars. But the really smart drivers’ signs read “Door unlocked, no radio.” It worked.

Hackers, we’re told, are ruining the Internet. I say our reaction to hack attacks has ruined it. It’s like 9/11. Three thousand people died. But attacking Afghanistan and Iraq killed more than a million. We should have sucked it up instead.

Security often destroys the very thing it’s supposed to protect. Take the TSA — please! Increased airport security measures after 9/11 have made flying so unpleasant that Americans are driving more instead. Meanwhile, “civil aviation” flights out of small airports — which have no or minimal security screenings — are increasingly popular. So are trains — no X-ray machines at the train station, either. Get rid of TSA checkpoints at the airport, let people walk their loved ones to the gate so they can wave goodbye, and I bet more people would fly in spite of the risk.

It’s not just government. Individuals obsess over security to the point that it makes the thing they’re protecting useless.

For my 12th birthday my dad gave me a 10-speed road bicycle. I still have that Azuki. It weighs a ton but it runs great. It’s worth maybe $20.

Bike theft is rife in Berkeley and Manhattan, but I tooled around both places on that banana yellow relic of the Ford Administration without fear of anything but the shame of absorbing insults from kids on the street. I often didn’t bother to lock up my beater. Never had a problem.

In my early 40s and feeling flush, I dropped $2400 on a royal blue Greg LeMond racing bike. Terrified that my prize possession might get stolen, I only ride it to destinations I deem ridiculously safe or where I’ll only have to leave it outside for a few minutes. So I hardly use it.

I’m an idiot.

Nice things are, well, nice to have. But they’re also a pain in the ass. In college one of my girlfriends (who I am not suggesting was a “thing,” obviously, and whom equally obviously I never thought I “had” in any ownership-y sense) had dazzling big blue eyes and golden blonde hair down to her waist and was so striking that guys literally walked into lampposts while gawking at her. Being seen with her was great for my ego. But every outing entailed a risk of violence as dudes catcalled and wolf-whistled; chivalry (and my girlfriend) dictated that I couldn’t ignore all of them. I sometimes suggested the 1980s equivalent of “Netflix and chill” (Channel J and wine coolers?) rather than deal with the stress. (We broke up for other reasons.)

So back to the big ransomware attack. What should you do if your ‘puter locks you out of your files unless you fork over $300? Wipe your hard drive and move on.

Back up regularly, Internet experts say, and this threat is one reason why. With a recent backup you can usually wipe your hard drive and restore your files from a backed-up version that predates the virus. Take that, villains! But no one does.

Meanwhile, our online lives are becoming as hobbled by excessive security as the airlines. Like the countless locks on Gabe Kaplan’s Brooklyn apartment door in “Welcome Back Kotter,” two-step authentication helps — but at what cost? You have to enter your password, wait for a text — if you’re traveling overseas, you have to pay a dollar or more to receive it — and enter it before accessing a site. Tech companies force us to choose a new password each time we forget the old one. Studies show that makes things worse: most users choose simpler passwords because they’re easier to remember.

The only thing to fear, FDR told us, is fear itself. What if we liberated ourselves from the threat of cyberattack — and a ton of work maintaining online security — by not having anything on our Internet-connected devices that we care about?

This would require a mental shift.

First, we should have fewer things online. When you think about it, many devices are connected to the Internet for a tiny bit of convenience but at significant risk to security. Using an app to warm up your house before you come home is nifty, but online thermostats are hardly worth the exposure to hackers who could drive up your utility bills, start a fire or even cause a brownout. Driverless cars could be remotely ordered to kill you — no thanks! I laugh at the Iranian nuclear scientists who set back their nation’s top-secret research program for years because their desire to cybercommute opened their system to the Stuxnet attack. Go to the office, lazybones!

The Internet of Things needs to be seriously rethought — and resisted.

As for your old-fashioned electronic devices — smartphones, tablets and laptops — it might be time to start thinking like a New Yorker during the 1980s. Leave the door unlocked. Just don’t leave anything in your glove compartment, or on your hard drive, that you would mind losing.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: I’m Not Changing My Passwords Just Cuz Hackers

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The 2003 film “House of Sand and Fog” depicts a tragic string of events that follows a woman who loses her house after ignoring eviction notices mistakenly sent to her for nonpayment of county taxes. A recovering drug addict recently abandoned by her husband, she’s overwhelmed by the deluge of bureaucratic housekeeping demanded by contemporary American society.

I think of that beleaguered woman’s character whenever I receive yet another notice from my credit card company that they are changing their terms and conditions, when an airline urges me to join their frequent flyer program, when a client informs me that they never received the email I’m sure I sent out, but now I can’t find in my sent messages. So much crap, so many petty details, why bother to get up in the morning?

Never is this deluge more front and center than during the immediate aftermath of the latest mass hacking, typically, allegedly, by online gangs in the former Soviet Union. During the Cold War, they said they would bury us. Now they are — in security-focused inanity.

In the latest fiasco that has to make one question if we are really better off now than we were in the old days of passbook savings, they’re saying that as many as 76 million households may have had their account information compromised by an incursion into computers at the banking conglomerate JPMorgan Chase. “The intrusion compromised the names, addresses, phone numbers and emails of those households, and can basically affect anyone — customers past and present — who logged onto any of Chase and JPMorgan’s websites or apps,” reports The New York Times. “That might include those who get access to their checking and other bank accounts online or someone who checks their credit card points over the web. Seven million small businesses also were affected.”

Understand this: we are supposed to be very very scared. And we’re supposed to be scared for a reason: they want us to act. They – the banks and corporations – want us to spend an awful lot of time and energy protecting their money.

Bear in mind, when someone steals your credit card data and makes unauthorized purchases or withdrawals, you’re not responsible. In short, it’s not your problem. But the media is colluding with the megabanks in order to make us care about something that we really shouldn’t.

Consider, for example, this advice to us banking customers in the Times article: “Those who want to add a layer of security to their financial life should consider a ‘security freeze,’ one of the strongest tools against theft because it prevents someone from trying to open a new account in a consumer’s name. When you freeze your reports, the big three credit bureaus will not release your credit reports to any company that does not already have a relationship with you. Financial providers and other companies typically request such reports before issuing a new account.”

Considering that this is something that the powers that be want us to do, they’re not making it easy.

The paper continues: “Consumers need to approach each of the three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — and may need to pay a small fee, depending on where they live. The process can be a hassle because the freeze has to be ‘thawed,’ or lifted, to apply for a new credit card, for instance, or for a mortgage. (And consumers may need to keep PINs and other information handy to do that).”

Uh-huh.

So let me get this straight. Credit agencies that earn billions of dollars selling our information, much of it erroneous, want to charge us for our own data, so we can protect the big banks that we bailed out in 2009 at taxpayer expense and even now refuse to refinance mortgages or lend to small businesses, a major reason that the economy is still terrible, and waste God knows how many hours online or on the phone dealing with this boring crap.

Well, hear this, Russian hackers and American banksters: I’m a busy person. I have a lot to do. Like most Americans, I work three jobs. If I ever find myself with any spare time, it’s going to be on the beach and is going to involve margaritas and good books.

I am not going to change my passwords every time I read one of these scare stories. I refuse to pick new unique passwords for each of my dozens of accounts. I will not freak out on behalf of people who don’t give a damn about me or anyone I care about. And it will be a cold day in hell before I put a credit freeze on my own account, and pay for the privilege.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

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