MY COMPUTER – I sensed trouble when my personal computer, or PC as we scientific types call it, kept going blank, then started playing the Croatian national anthem. It switched to recipes for mud soup, Eskimo porn, a test pattern and then locked in on “Esperanto – let’s give it a chance.” So I called on my ace PC guru, Timmy, once he was through with Little League practice. He poked around, seemingly to stop on Eskimo porn, and announced: “You’ve been hacked.” Imagine the thrill with the knowledge that from now on I could speed through school zones and demand the best table in a restaurant – with no reservations. This is because nobodies don’t get selected. Only important people, cities and the IRS get hacked. As our leader recently declared: “I am the chosen one!”
OK, it is a problem. But at least I don’t have to spend mornings killing out email from Capital Bank, which has found problems with my account and needs me to send my account number and password, which I would send except that I don’t have an account with Capital Bank. Nor do I have one with Bank of America, which also had serious ID problems, and the Left Bank of the Bayou, where I do have an account except that I covered that overdraft yesterday. Then there is the Nigerian prince who has $20 million in a London bank that he will share with me if I help him withdraw it, and show my goodwill by sending him $1,000. I didn’t fall for that – at least not the third time. Maybe I shouldn’t feel too special. In 2018 there were 1.244-million hacks exposing 446.52-million documents. Hey, that’s down from 2017 when there were 1.632-million hacks but exposed only197.61-million documents. Security experts like to say that there are now only two types of companies left in the United States: those that have been hacked and those that don’t know they’ve been hacked.
Some computer nerds get a bit testy over the term “hacker,” a meaning that has changed. They point out that the term “computer hacker” first showed up in the mid-1960s. A hacker was a programmer — someone who hacked out computer codes. Wrote one defender: “Hackers were visionaries who could see new ways to use computers, creating programs that no one else could conceive.” Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak were all hackers. Today the word conjures up some 16-year-old in his Frankfurt basement messing with his computer to see who he (it’s always a he) can freak out. Or, more sinister, an untraceable gang in the Ukraine that is in the ransomware biz. More than 70 state and local governments have been hit with ransomware so far in 2019, including 23 municipal governments in Texas. So if your water bill is late, or totals $400,000, you know you live in one of those towns.
Lake City, Florida, paid nearly $500,000 in June following a ransomware attack, just a week after Riviera Beach, Florida, paid more than $600,000 after officials figured that was the only way to recover the city’s files. In March, $400,000 was paid by Jackson County, Georgia, to get back its systems following a ransomware infection. Outside the U.S., an attack in Johannesburg, South Africa, led to blackouts when the city-owned electric utility experienced outages as a result of the ransomware attack. I don’t know if they paid, but the next time you visit Johannesburg, see if your hotel lights work. You don’t have to pay off, but it’s expensive. Baltimore was attacked in 2018, but paid no ransom. Recovery costs came to $18 million.
The U.S. government lives in fear that hackers will break into all sorts of federal agencies, shutting down air traffic, NOAA hurricane watches and – like Johannesburg – electric grids. Their fears are real. We must assume that right now there are gremlins in the Kremlin busily decoding FBI reports, the identity of CIA spies and confidential tweets from the White House. (“Stormy, come back.”) And don’t worry about the results of the 2020 presidential election. Putin’s People already have the results – Trump by a landslide. The one exception to hacking secrets the Trump administration approves of is the files, messages and secret info of the Democratic National Committee. That is not only permitted but encouraged – again. Don’t believe the 2020 Census results, either. For the upcoming headcount, the Census Bureau is relying heavily on computers for the tally. You may discover there are 22 people living in your house that you don’t know about.
All of this hacking has coined a new term and a new profession: cybersecurity. It’s now a big biz, mainly because it doesn’t work. (An anti-hacking company in Atlanta was, uh, hacked.) Universities now greet cybersecurity students with a choice: you can either be a hacker or an anti-hacker. Interestingly enough, the hotbed for cybersecurity is, obviously, San Antonio. Between the U.S. Army and UT-San Antonio, every expert in the field is flocking to the Alamo City.
The most common way to get into your computer is through email. Don’t open any suspicious messages, such as one from Ransomware ‘R Us, Hackers, Inc. or from your Uncle Mongoose if you don’t have an uncle named Mongoose. If you do, you have a weird family. I can’t figure out who or how hackers got into my computer. I never open any mail I don’t recognize, although the hackers have become so sophisticated that they can actually lift names from your address list and use them. So if in doubt, don’t open any email. Stop whining. What did you do, how did you communicate, before email? Just to be safe, demand letters, good ol’ ink and paper. Chances are you won’t be receiving any mail at all. One German intelligence agency has found a way to avoid being a target: for its most sensitive documents it uses typewriters and carbon paper.
Ashby is hacked at email@example.com