Gordon Weil

Gordon Weil

At Burlington Electric, a Vermont utility, a computer has been hacked by a Russian organization whose footprint is well known because it has messed with so many foreign systems.

The Clinton campaign was hacked by a Russian group, presumably trying to influence the election by exposing embarrassing, insider emails.

A Chinese Army operation tapped into Google and other American corporations to gain confidential business information, which will help competing Chinese enterprises.

The U.S. government gained secret access to phone and email data of Americans who have done nothing illegal but may have aroused suspicions.



You receive an email that looks like it is from a friend and click on a link in the message, later to discover you have suffered from phishing.

Using your smart phone, you turn on lights in your house a hundred miles away, unknowingly enabling a hacker to gain access to your computer by accessing the light switch password.

Every one of these cases reveals the effects of a lack of effective computer security. All of it can prove to be dangerous and harmful. Is this the brave, new world in which there is no privacy, no secrets?

Because of our enthusiasm for electronic communication, we and our institutions are exposed to harm. As the Internet developed, many believed that anonymity was assured by the sheer number of people using it. How could anyone find a Burlington Electric computer or tap into a person’s checking account when there were so many users?

The anonymity we may have imagined failed to take into account the power of technology. The FBI could request data on millions of phone calls and readily sift through them in minutes for calls made by a person it was seeking. Along the way, it might accidentally find out about your private communications.

And would nobody read your Facebook page except your friends? In fact, social media transformed privacy as many people easily shed it without considering the consequences.

Most, if not all, of this could have been avoided. The electric grid operated reasonably well before the Internet. Hands-on operators used written manuals and their own knowledge of the system to make it function.

Of course, the Internet has opened more opportunities for greater efficiency and the participation of more suppliers. But the lights could stay on under the old system.

The problem is that the operators have thrown away the manuals, and a new generation does not know how to work without electronic links. We seemed to be enthralled by the idea of creating larger grids, so that more customers are linked, though a catastrophic event may fan out more widely.

Bring back the manuals, train operators to carry out manual operation and avoid interlinking too many systems to prevent the spread of problems. The grid would be a lot less vulnerable to foreign hackers.

You may be urged to go paperless. Have your bills sent directly to the bank, which can pay them for you. You may never again see a bill, supposedly an advantage to you. The big gain goes to the vendor, which saves on postage and printing without passing any savings on to you.

The paperless world may seem easier, but you can lose the ability to spot mistakes or track spending. Gaining convenience, you may have made yourself more vulnerable to theft. With paper, you get records that could turn out to be essential after they disappear on line.

Experts say we cause many of our own problems. If hackers can decipher one of our passwords, they can probably gain access to a number of our supposedly protected links. People tend to pick easy-to-guess passwords and use them repeatedly without changing them periodically. We can fix this ourselves.

Companies and the government need not link all of their computers to the Internet. Some can be reserved for internal use only or, like the Burlington Electric computer, can remain unconnected to critical operations.

As for government itself or the political parties, the Democratic National Party hacking teaches helpful lessons.

Just because email and messaging is easy, it makes a record of every conversation. If government and party officials talked with one another, that might increase the security of the communication.

Having to make the effort to talk could cut down on useless chatting.

More communications should be in writing on paper. That produces an incentive for more limited distribution and a less vulnerable record.

Internet communication is easy, but it is becoming too easy. Using countermeasures and exercising care are essential, but they require our effort.

Gordon Weil is a former public official. He lives in Harpswell.

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