Security is an illusion

We live under the constant threat of being hacked. In some cases, we have become immune to our e-mail addresses being used as agents for the selling of costume jewellery, Viagra and essay writing services. In other cases, our websites and Facebook pages have been taken over (see my previous article “Being Flogged on my Blog”) leading to more serious identity theft and personality hijacking. What can be done? Enter cryptography.

But pundits will argue that we have had encryption and firewall technology around for a long time and the best ones have kept one step ahead of the bag guys. But these technologies only get better “in the breach,” that is, only after the miscreants have crept in, wreaked their damage, and left a trail for us to research build further protections against. One might argue that the data security firms are the very ones sponsoring the hackers, not only to stress-test their products but also to create more customers. After all, isn’t that what arms manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and private jails do?

And the threat of a breach to one’s security goes up exponentially as we put more of our identities online for convenience sake: banking passwords, medical records, demographic information, selfies taken at every day of our recent lives, purchasing transactions, the list is building… We trust “clouds” with our data, but do we know where these clouds exist? Are they in abandoned warehouses that are fire hazards, in desert server farms subject to climate change, or in countries where regime change is imminent? We just don’t know. All the more reason to encrypt our data from even those who are holding it in safekeeping. Like the old bank safety deposit box, that needs two keys, one of them being yours, in order to open it.

Okay, now we have got to the core need. I need a key, one that cannot be copied or stolen digitally, in order for my data storage box to be opened or closed. I need a physical key. Therefore, I need my data to be stored in a place which I can physically reach and use my physical key to access. Does that mean storing my data on a separate hard drive, not accessible to the internet? And does that imply placing it in a safe or bank deposit box with its own key somewhere within commuting distance? And when I need pieces of data to work on, I just retrieve them from this storage system described above, put them back on my laptop (that is hooked up to the Internet), hoping like hell that no one grabs anything while I am working, despite my fancy firewall protection software, and quickly returning my re-worked data to my safety deposit box after I have finished my work and after wiping my laptop clean? Seems like a rather convoluted process. The world, as we know it, would come to a grinding halt while we engage in these time consuming data security actions.

And the pundits of free enterprise will argue that this back-to-basics approach would be a restriction of our rights and options, a return to hiding our talents under a bushel, to inhibiting the hacker industry and the data security industry, and by extension, the arms, pharmaceuticals and private incarceration industries.

And so we say, “WTF,” and carry on our merry status-quo way, risking hackers, risking identity theft, risking losing all our social media friends who will un-friend us the moment we start behaving peculiarly, and losing our wealth when it is stolen from our bank. Our consolation is that information theft and cryptography has existed throughout the ages, like cat and mouse. Remember those Allied code breakers in WWII? They were the good-guy hackers of the day. Hackers and Cryptographers—one will never vanquish the other, in fact, one lives because of the other, and we are the poor suckers who give them life at our expense. So suck it up and get on with it—security is an illusion.

Misinformation Rules Cyberspace

While I was struggling to find out who had won the California Primary, it dawned on me that the sources of information I was consulting were often contradicting each other. In one report, Hillary had won, in the other, Bernie had won by a landslide, in another, the ballots were still being counted, in another, several ballots had been intentionally spoiled or withheld. The official news agencies were supposed to be suppressing and playing up Hillary, so we were advised not to trust Big Media. Finally, I gave up in frustration and posted a question on Facebook to my friends, requesting a credible source, and I was pointed to the Secretary of State’s website. But given the mud-slinging going on between the Democrats and the Republicans, I wondered whether this source too was a trustworthy one. Suddenly, I awoke to the frightening reality: Might is Right. Those who control the levers of power shape the narrative, and those who don’t, muddle it.

That this US election has been the dirtiest in living history is in no doubt. Elections, not only in America, have been getting dirtier over time, and the attack ad is now the weapon of mass destruction, the easiest to mobilize, and the most potent one that ensures decimation of the opponent. The philosophy is, “If I destroy the opposition, then weak old me will win.” Gone are platform positioning, and policy outlining; those strategies are not revealed for fear that the attack ad will be turned onto them in a flash, rendering them into flames. Then there are those “news agencies” that have sprung up on the web, some with names that resemble official news sites. Sometimes their bad grammar and poor proofing give them away, but given the shrinking fortunes of the official news media that has also suffered poor editorial copy as a consequence, both sources look pretty similar. Another give-away of the fake source is the abundance of ads and cookies that take over your screen and never let go the moment you click on its news pages. There will also be follow-up news items appended below the main article (after you have clicked through several scantily text-populated pages) that are sure to contain pictures of voluptuous women and virile men, with headlines such as “Lose 50 pounds in two days,” or “How to sculpt the perfect body,” or “How to drive your partner mad in bed.” But aren’t all these gimmicks copied from the traditional magazine circuit that pioneered the titillating headline?

Everyone is a journalist today, mashing-up news from unreliable sources, choosing them for sensationalist value, photo-shopping pictures to distort reality, pledging allegiance to one party or the other (even being in their employ) and flooding cyberspace with contradictory information. Is this responsible curation? Is this unraveling the truth? Who does one believe? Do we become cynical instead and treat these stories as entertainment only, and thereby perpetuate the myth that politics is show-biz, and thus, as voters, face the difficult choice of either watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones or going out to vote on election day? Which “entertainment” do we pick? Is this cynicism-leading-to-apathy what caused the shock when Brexit actually happened?

We created this Misinformation Monster due to several confluences: Big Media sold out to corporations with vested interests, cyberspace was “occupied” by a few big players like Google and Facebook, politicians yielded to lobby groups that funded them. And Joe Blow citizen decided to become a journalist and add to the Babel of news that no one believes. And search engines don’t give a hoot about credibility, for their search and display algorithms don’t include a lie detector.

Welcome to the new world of (mis)information. I don’t have any solutions. But I have a wish that investigative journalists continue to be retained by news organizations, with the freedom to uncover and reveal that which is true but not necessarily that which is politically correct or palatable. And if the paid ones die out, then citizen journalists, fueled only by a passion for the truth, replace them. It’s wishful thinking, but at least, we are still free to wish, and to hope.

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