Dan Thomasson - Hackers chip away at privacy, security

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Recently, a friend was notified that her bankcard, one of those cash-back accounts, had been "compromised" and a new credit card with a new personal identification number would have to be issued. She also learned that her email had been hacked, presumably after she opened an innocent-looking message from a prominent website that appeals to seniors.

Welcome to the wonderful world of electronic gratification, where all your needs and wants are easily met by a few keystrokes. The globe is at your fingertips.

No one is secure from the intrusion of voracious goblins looking to steal your most personal and private information. Even Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are apparently among their victims.

The FBI, it seems, is looking into the matter. One can only ask whether the president himself has joined the ranks of millions who've had their online business invaded. The site under investigation reportedly may have obtained such records as Social Security numbers and addresses and credit reports of Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder and even FBI Director Robert Mueller. One can only imagine how J. Edgar Hoover would have taken that news.

A lot of the information apparently stems from reporting agencies that gather information to determine one's credit worthiness.

The questions raised here are obvious. How can we do business without the threat of hack attack, when every facet of life is recorded somewhere and the only way we can conduct our daily affairs is through a system of unmitigated and often unwanted transparency? But who can turn back that clock? Perhaps the only way to survive would be to insulate ourselves in isolation, using only snail mails, eschewing banks, paying only cash, refusing to subscribe to anything online or to own a credit card.

In other words, withdraw from this society to one that existed a century or so ago. That might not even be feasible, unless we wish to be like those people out in Idaho who repair to the beautiful mountains and live apart or if we drive buggies and use oil lamps like they do in parts of Pennsylvania. I really don't hear much about the Amish being ripped off by Internet predators.

But if you choose to live in a modern society, there still may be an opportunity to minimize your risk. A decade or so ago, I took on the assignment, with a bright young lawyer, of visiting our company's far-flung properties to warn them of the dangers of doing business online, even in closed networks dedicated to internal affairs. Emails, we informed them, were notoriously insecure. Firewalls were ineffective and could be breached by a generation of electronically gifted hackers.

We told employees to follow an old-time rule: Never write or send a message, even to a colleague, that couldn't be published on the front page of any newspaper, including ours, without embarrassment or negative implications. The current missives never disappear; they're tucked away neatly for everyone to see eventually. They can't be chewed and swallowed.

Trying to follow my own advice, I have refused to join social networks of any kind; refused to buy most things online and have rejected appeals from my banks to do business with them online, including paying my bills. I'm still buying stamps, for Pete's sake. Some of this may stem from my fear of most things electronic and from my own clumsiness in doing anything much more than writing on what I still regard as a magical wizard machine.

Hacking by our foreign rivals ultimately may be more devastating to our society than a nuclear attack. Cyberspace clearly is the next major battleground and our scientists are working hard to find an antidote if that is at all possible. China has been all over us already.

Meanwhile, we must now worry that our key leaders are vulnerable. Welcome to Utopia.

(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)

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